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Vesla Weaver Vesla Weaver: Seeking to Change Election Laws That Discriminate

May 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.

Weaver, 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.

She 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 life’s work: securing the passage of consistent state voting laws.

Weaver, 21, will begin graduate work next fall in Harvard University’s Social Policy and Government Program, which offers a multidisciplinary study of inequality. She graduates from the College of Arts and Sciences on May 20.

Working 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.

She 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

rates 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.

"Such restrictive voting laws are race neutral on their face, but they are actually discriminatory," Weaver said. "They disproportionately affect blacks."

Further 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.

Lawmakers 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.

It wasn’t 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.

"Once people have paid their debt to society, they should be allowed to vote," Weaver said. "Otherwise, it’s taxation without representation."

Most 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.

The 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, Weaver’s research shows.

The 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.

Weaver 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 didn’t hurt.

In 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. That’s where things stand now.

Looking ahead, Weaver wants to add a law degree to her credentials to prepare for a career in lobbying and public policy.

"I 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."

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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