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On Friday, Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia took an important step towards reform by issuing an executive order that restores voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons, including those convicted of violent crimes.

"I Voted" stickers are seen in Super Tuesday elections at the Wilson School in Arlington, Virginia March 1, 2016.   © 2016 Reuters

This unparalleled move comes as the United States Congress and some states are considering reforms to their sentencing laws. Restoring the vote to people with criminal convictions should be a part of any effort to recalibrate state and federal approaches to crime and punishment.

Before this move, Virginia was one of 12 states with the most extreme voting restrictions in the US. Roughly 45 percent of the US’s disenfranchised population – those whose right to vote has been revoked – live in these states.

Governor McAuliffe’s order opens the door for several hundred thousand Virginians to once again participate in politics. Other states should follow suit.

The US’s disenfranchised population has grown drastically over the past three decades due to harsh criminal sentencing laws. All but two states in the US impose strict voting restrictions on people with felony convictions, and many extend those restrictions even to those who have completed probation or parole. Because of a prison sentence, millions have been stripped of their right to have their voices heard.

No other democratic country in the world denies as many people – in absolute or proportional terms – the right to vote because of felony convictions. As we have documented, felony disenfranchisement laws in the US disproportionately affect African American men. In fact, before the governor’s order, 20 percent of black adults in Virginia were disenfranchised. Nationally, one in 13 black adults have lost their right to vote. The extent of disenfranchisement in the US is as troubling as the fact that the right to vote can be lost for relatively minor offenses. In some states, an offender who receives probation for a single sale of drugs can be barred from voting for a lifetime.

Restrictions on voting in the US are unreasonable, racially discriminatory, and in violation of international human rights law. The US has been expanding suffrage since the end of the Civil War. It’s time for all Americans, regardless of their race, gender, or criminal history, to be able to exercise their right to vote. 

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