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Taking our Democracy to the Next Level -- in Virginia

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With no disrespect to other states, I firmly believe my home Commonwealth of Virginia is the most extraordinary state in the union. It's not immodest to say that Virginia gave democracy not only to the American nation, but to the world. Our provenance includes the soaring ideas of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry, and the civil rights victories of leaders like Oliver Hill.

But we have a ball and chain in Virginia that weighs us down, preventing us from reaching the promise of our great democratic history: the disenfranchisement laws that date back to our Jim Crow era and that currently prevent at least one in five African-American men from voting in Virginia.

I'm running for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia because I believe I can help keep Virginia moving forward -- in the direction of Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Barack Obama. This venture builds on almost fifteen years as a Democratic and social justice activist in Virginia, including serving as Deputy Counselor to Governor Mark Warner in Richmond and as the Democratic Party's "election protection" director for the state.

In these devastating economic times, I think any candidate worth their salt must first and foremost address kitchen table issues, and I was the first candidate to introduce a comprehensive jobs plan that would create 50,000 new jobs by the end of 2011 in seven critical sectors, including the creation of a "smart grid" and efficiency and weatherization.

But I'm also the only candidate to date to address the extremely difficult issue of the disenfranchisement laws that are holding Virginia back. I recently devoted one of my campaign's popular YouTube "Coffee Breaks" to this issue (click here to watch). I've taken on this difficult issue because I believe strengthening democracy wherever possible is a cause greater than Virginia -- the charge to expand and perfect democracy goes back to freedom and the idea of American herself.

I recently met a middle-aged African-American woman in Prince William County whose 34 year old son works full-time at Costco. He committed a felony when he was 21 years old. In the years since, he was released from jail, has found a good job, and has a daughter he cares for. But he still can't vote. The woman expressed to me her frustration that her son -- who had all the makings of a good citizen -- was locked out of the system.

Virginia today prevents any man or woman who has committed a felony and paid their debt to society from voting for life, even though most other states have recently changed their laws to automatically reinstate voting rights at some point. Even in Texas, Governor George W. Bush signed into law a revocation of the state's disenfranchisement laws. In the last couple of years, Florida and Iowa changed their laws, leaving Virginia all alone with Kentucky as the two remaining states that disenfranchise felons for life, unless they successfully apply for a restoration of their rights.

These laws go back to ancient Rome, where they were referred to as "civil death" -- creating a category of second-class people denied the basic faculty of citizenship: voting and participating in the political process. In America and in Virginia, the laws were designed to prevent African-Americans from voting by attaching to specific crimes, like petty larceny, seen as "black" crimes.

The historical evidence is shockingly clear. At the 1901 Constitutional Convention where the disenfranchisement laws were included in Virginia law, for instance, a white man named Carter Glass (who later went on to become a U.S. Senator) reacted to concerns that the laws might be struck down by federal courts as racially discriminatory by saying:

Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose; that exactly, is why this Convention was elected -- to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution with the view to the elimination of every [N]egro who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the strength of the white electorate.

The issue of disenfranchisement at home is connected with a broader challenge: how to make sure our democracy at home in America is top-notch in an age where democracy has become an essential goal in our national security strategy abroad. At a time when we most needed to strengthen our constitutionalism here at home, the Bush administration did substantial harm through doctrines such as the "unitary executive" theory and the FISA wiretap policy. And with the "Freedom Agenda" that installed democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the neocons ignored the fact that democracy must be carefully weeded and tended, like a garden. They thought instead it would sprout like Jack's Beanstalk.

There's a clear connection between the disrespect of the constitutional fundamentals of a successful democracy at home and the sloppy and naïve installation of democracies abroad. I recently published a book called Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies. In the book, I observe that democracy works best when it rests on a foundation of constitutionalism: a culture of values that, on the one hand, leads each person to consider themselves a citizen with republican virtues and responsibilities, and, on the other hand, keeps leaders on a short leash -- "chastening authority," in the words of one scholar.

We urgently need to correct course from the Bush years -- both abroad and here at home -- and strengthen our constitutionalism. In Virginia, this would include my campaign proposal for changing the system to a year-long waiting period for ex-felons and then automatically allowing them to vote.

But we need additional steps as well to strengthen our democracy. Virginia should pass a "Clean Money" campaign finance system that will grant public financing to candidates who gather a certain number of $5 contributions -- successfully in place in Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina. We should pass non-partisan redistricting to makes sure that districts aren't gerrymandered and partisan gridlock isn't inevitable. We should pass "early voting" to make voting as easy as possible. We should dramatically increase civic education so children understand the gifts and responsibilities of being free citizens in a free state. In Virginia, we need to reform "Dillon's Rule," which requires localities to get a permission slip from Richmond before enacting progressive reforms.

As Tip O'Neill said, all politics is local. All democracy is local as well. If America can return to its proper place as a beacon for the world, we'll need to do the hard, uncomfortable, but necessary work of cutting free the chains that prevent our democracy from living up to our own extraordinary potential -- especially in the great and historic Commonwealth of Virginia.