Weaver: Seeking to Change Election Laws That Discriminate
4, 2001-- Vesla Weaver spent the winter of 2000 knocking
on doors in tiny towns in New Hampshire and New York, campaigning
for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley. Along the way,
she learned that many -- but not all -- people convicted of felonies
were barred from voting in federal elections.
a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia from Vienna,
found that voting laws vary radically from state to state. In Maine
and Vermont, incarcerated felons can vote. In Virginia, no one convicted
of a felony can vote again, legally, in a state or federal election.
wondered how one country could have such a broad range of voting
laws. The answer -- which became her honors thesis in government
-- may guide her lifes work: securing the passage of consistent
state voting laws.
21, will begin graduate work next fall in Harvard Universitys
Social Policy and Government Program, which offers a multidisciplinary
study of inequality. She graduates from the College of Arts and
Sciences on May 20.
with her undergraduate thesis adviser, Lynn Sanders, associate professor
of government and foreign affairs, Weaver created a data set for
the 1996 presidential election. She included information for all
50 states, voter turnout by race, and disenfranchisement by category
-- parolees, probationers, inmates, ex-convicts.
found states with tighter voting restrictions had lower voter turnouts
than states with less-restrictive voting laws. Those states -- mostly
in the South -- with the lowest voter-turnout
among blacks were those with permanent disenfranchisement laws,
banning voting by felons for life. States with the tightest restrictions
also tended to be those with the highest populations of African
Americans, Weaver found.
restrictive voting laws are race neutral on their face, but they
are actually discriminatory," Weaver said. "They disproportionately
research showed that most voting restrictions enacted by state legislatures,
which apply to state and federal elections, were adopted between
1890 and 1910. Once Congress adopted the 15th amendment
to the U.S. Constitution in 1870 -- giving black men the vote --
many state legislatures, especially in the South, sought new ways
to keep them from voting, Weaver said.
enacted several effective ways of continuing to deny blacks the
right to vote. These included poll taxes, literacy tests, all-white
primaries, and grandfather clauses -- a person could vote only if
his grandfather voted. Weaver investigated the speeches given at
state political conventions during that period and found the intentions
of the party leaders -- Republican and Democratic -- were clear:
keep blacks from voting.
wasnt until 1965 , when President Johnson signed the federal
Voting Rights Act, that all of these discriminatory laws were struck
down -- except the felony conviction measures, Weaver said.
people have paid their debt to society, they should be allowed to
vote," Weaver said. "Otherwise, its taxation without
disenfranchised felons are not currently incarcerated, and most
are not informed that even a probationary sentence in some states
is grounds for losing the right to vote for life, Weaver said.
voting restrictions have disenfranchised 3.9 million Americans,
or 2 percent of the voting population, she said. In 14 states, mostly
in the South, convicted felons cannot vote in federal elections.
More than 25 percent of the black male population is barred from
voting in four southern states -- Mississippi, Florida, Virginia
and Alabama, Weavers research shows.
issue has not been studied in depth from a political-science standpoint,
Weaver said, which is where she plans to focus her graduate studies.
She hopes to turn her undergraduate thesis, "Racial Profiling
at the Polling Place: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement on
Black Participation," into a doctoral dissertation and a book
written for the general public.
credits her interest in political science to the summer spent with
the Ralph Bunche Institute at U.Va. and studies in race and politics
with Paula McClain, a former U.Va. professor of government and foreign
affairs who is now a political science professor at Duke University.
A course in quantitative methods with Paul Freedman, U.Va. assistant
professor of government and foreign affairs, also didnt hurt.
1999, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced legislation that
would have required states to allow ex-felons with completed sentences
to vote in federal elections, but the bill languished in committee
because none of his fellow lawmakers wanted to appear soft on crime,
Weaver said. Thats where things stand now.
ahead, Weaver wants to add a law degree to her credentials to prepare
for a career in lobbying and public policy.
often wonder why the United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts
among democracies, with barely half of the eligible voters participating
in any given presidential election," Weaver said. "I want
to understand voting barriers fully and push for universal voting
rights. There is no place for discriminatory policies, reminiscent
of the Jim Crow era, in the 21st century."
Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858