RICHMOND, Va. – On a steamy early August afternoon outside Broomfield Christian Methodist Church, along a desolate stretch of Jefferson Davis Highway in this former Confederate capital, William Irvin Banks Jr. recalled rejoicing when Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored his right to vote.
But Banks’ eyes suddenly turned downcast. And he could hardly contain his outrage and sense of injustice. For in July, the Virginia Supreme Court stripped away his voting rights and those of about 200,000 other ex-felons, striking down the governor’s April executive order restoring voting rights to all ex-felons in the state who had completed their sentences, parole or probation.
The bearded 31-year-old, wearing a white T-shirt with the word “BOSS” in black letters, committed armed robbery in 2006 and served a few years for it.
Banks got a notice in the mail from state elections officials, though, saying his voter registration had been canceled under the court order and could be restored only by an individual order signed by the governor.
“I was 21 when that robbery happened, and I’m 31 now,” Banks said, standing under a lone shade tree and spitting out his words rapid-fire. “So you mean to tell me what I did when I was 21, you’re still punishing me for what I did when I was 21?”
But Banks had reason to rejoice Monday.
After four months of political and legal wrangling, McAuliffe, a Democrat, announced he had signed individual orders allowing 13,000 ex-felons who had registered to vote after the governor’s April order, including Banks, to re-register.
Now Banks is eager to vote in the November election.
“I mean, I want to rejoin society and be a productive person in society,” he said. “I learned my lesson from my incarceration. If you’re willing to come back to society, be productive and do what you’re supposed to do in life, they should welcome you back with open arms.”
Banks, a father of two grown children who said he’s looking for work after recently losing a job as a bouncer at a nightclub, considers jobs the biggest issue in the 2016 presidential election, as well as in state and local races.
Virginia: At Center of U.S. Debate
Virginia’s contentious – and racially and politically charged fight, with conservative Republican lawmakers leading the opposition to Democrat McAuliffe’s order – places the state at the crux of a national debate over restrictions on ex-offenders’ voting rights.
Across the nation, GOP governors and state legislators have increasingly fought efforts to restore ex-felon voting rights in recent years.
Nationwide, as in Virginia, ex-felon voting restrictions disproportionately affect African-Americans such as Banks. In recent years, grassroots advocates and people who have not been able to vote have been raising their voices, especially in Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida, in what has become a pressing civil rights issue for U.S. democracy.
In Virginia, more than one in five African-Americans can’t vote because of a felony conviction, and they comprise 45 percent of those who had been covered by McAuliffe’s order in a state where African-Americans make up less than 20 percent of the population, according to The Sentencing Project, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
In his announcement Monday, McAuliffe said he had used an autopen to sign individual orders restoring voting rights for the 13,000 ex-felons and that they would receive his order and a voter registration card they can use to re-register.
The governor said about 80 percent of ex-felons whose voting rights had been restored in April had been convicted of nonviolent offenses.
McAuliffe also pledged to move quickly to review records for the estimated 200,000 ex-felons still unregistered and urged them to contact the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth about getting their voting rights restored.
“I believe in the power of second chances and in the dignity and worth of every human being,” McAuliffe said under a brilliant blue sky at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, commemorating protests demanding school desegregation in the state.
“I am done wasting time arguing about the old Virginia way. We’ve got a new Virginia way now.”
Kelly Thomasson, secretary of the Commonwealth, said the McAuliffe administration would restore voting rights to the roughly 200,000 ex-felons “as expediently as possible.” But she said she couldn’t predict whether their voting rights would be restored by the Oct. 17 deadline to register to vote in a state where their votes could decide the presidential election.
“We want to make sure we’re reviewing the legal implications of this case so we don’t find ourselves right back up in court,” Thomasson said.
Suppressing Black Voting Rights
When he announced the order to restore voting rights for ex-felons on the steps of the state Capitol on April 22, McAuliffe spoke of the state’s “long and sad history” of suppressing African-Americans’ voting rights.
The 1901-02 Virginia constitution, McAuliffe noted, re-established poll taxes and literacy tests and vastly expanded the Civil War-era disenfranchisement of ex-felons to keep African-Americans from casting ballots.
At the Virginia Constitutional Convention, where delegates adopted the ban on ex-felons voting, delegate Carter Glass said, “This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years, so that in no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
Lynetta Thompson, president of the Richmond chapter of the NAACP, sees the GOP lawsuit that led to the state Supreme Court’s decision as a legacy of the state’s long, shameful history of racial bigotry.
Speaking of the GOP opposition to ex-felons’ voting, Thompson said: “It is racist, it is documented to be racist and its purpose is racist. It’s meant to keep Black folks from voting, to disenfranchise those voters. That goes back to the status imposed on them as slaves in the Commonwealth, so it would keep a certain power structure. This is a civil rights issue of our time.”
The April order, which McAuliffe has called among his proudest achievements since taking office in January 2014, immediately drew fierce criticism from conservatives in the Republican-controlled state General Assembly.
They ascribed McAuliffe’s order to political motivations, pointing out he is a longtime friend of and fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and suggesting he hoped the move would help her carry the state by granting voting rights to more African-Americans.
Since the mid-20th century, Blacks have overwhelmingly voted for Democrats. McAuliffe denies the GOP claim.
The GOP plaintiffs – two lawmakers and four other citizens – claimed McAuliffe’s order exceeded his state constitutional authority, and that argument ultimately prevailed in the court’s 4-3 conservative majority ruling.
One of the plaintiffs, Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell, said Monday that the General Assembly would scrutinize each order to restore ex-felons’ voting rights.
“[McAuliffe] has restored the rights of some odious criminals,” Howell said in a statement.
“The people of Virginia deserve a full explanation of the policy, specifically why he is restoring rights to habitual offenders, those who have not yet paid back their victims, and the Commonwealth’s worst sex offenders.”
Howell and other Republicans said McAuliffe’s April order had restored voting rights to 132 sex offenders still in custody and to several convicted murderers on probation in other states.
Matthew Moran, a spokesman for Howell, called the court’s July 22 ruling vindication for the plaintiffs.
“The heart of this issue was a fundamental executive overreach by the governor, who purported to have powers that the constitution did not grant him,” Moran said.
Asked if Howell believed a bid to win votes for Clinton underlay the governor’s order, Moran said: “I don’t think there’s anyone in Richmond who doubts that was the governor’s intention.”
Daunting Challenges Remain
Far from the state Capitol building – away from the endless politicking, claims and counterclaims, legalisms and politicos’ speeches – anger, frustration, confusion and despair pervade among many ex-felons in this racially-divided Southern city.
“It’s just been heartbreaking and devastating,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, a progressive, grassroots organization that led voter-registration efforts after McAuliffe’s order.
“People kept telling us how they felt they had been redeemed, that they had finally been given a voice, but now their voice has been taken away again.”
Nguyen called McAuliffe’s Monday announcement a “step forward,” adding: “We applaud the governor for doing everything in his power to restore ex-felons’ voting rights. The process is a lot clearer now, and we can tell people it seems like things are going to move forward pretty quickly.”
But she noted some 200,000 ex-felons remain ineligible to vote and said her organization would redouble efforts to reach out to them and encourage them to contact the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
“I don’t think we will have a true victory for democracy until every citizen has their right to vote,” Nguyen said. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and get back to work. We have a lot of work to do.”
Hitting the Streets to Seek out Former Felons
Muhammad Assaddique Abdul-Rockman sees ex-felons daily, as a canvasser for the New Virginia Majority. He fans out into housing projects, other low-income neighborhoods, under bridges, in parks where homeless people while away the summer days on benches until they can get back into a shelter in the evening.
He identifies with all the ex-felons: He is one of them.
Abdul-Rockman, 53, spent 17 years in prison for strong-armed robbery, assault and breaking and entering.
In prison, he read voraciously – immersing himself in history, government and politics.
And immediately after the governor’s April order, he registered himself, then took to the streets to register 500 others. When somebody suggested he contact the New Virginia Majority, he did, and the organization hired him right away.
Wearing khakis and a baseball cap, Abdul-Rockman has a way of putting people at ease with his gentle, self-effacing manner. He asks whether they’re registered to vote, then explains the governor’s order, before segueing into whether they’re affected by the order.
He never comes right out and asks whether they’ve been convicted of a felony.
But he minces no words when he talks about what’s at stake in the coming election:
“It’s all about where this country is going for the next generation or two – up to three new justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, keeping the national security apparatus out of the hands of the neocons, as they call themselves, the continuation, upgrade and expansion of affordable health care, jobs,” he said.
“If you don’t vote, you don’t count. And you’re not a full citizen. And that’s it.”
He agrees with McAuliffe, the NAACP of Virginia, the Virginia ACLU and numerous Black leaders that racism underlies the GOP opposition to the governor’s order in a state with among the nation’s most-restrictive laws on ex-felon voting, and one of the highest proportions of ex-felons ineligible to vote.
“Racism is running deep in this country,” Abdul-Rockman said. “This lawsuit demonstrates that.”
He encounters Terrence McLaughlin waiting for a bus outside the busy downtown Richmond bus terminal.
McLaughlin, a 58-year-old Black man wearing a blue shirt emblazoned with “Cavalier Ink,” the Richmond company where he produces ink, said he never registered to vote after his 2005 felony conviction for child neglect. He didn’t realize he would be eligible.
He spent a year in jail and served four years’ probation. But, after learning the governor could restore his voting rights, he wants to cast his ballot to make his voice heard on issues such as jobs, care for the elderly and treatment for drug addicts and the mentally ill.
“I’ve served my time,” he said. “Now, give me back my rights, so I can get my life together, because what you’re doing is, you’re holding people back. You’re making them feel like they’re not even human, like they’re animals, like they don’t count. You feel like nobody gives a rat’s ass about you. It’s supposed to be government by the people.”
“Like having the right to speak taken from you”
In Monroe Park, on the western edge of Richmond’s downtown, Todd Lee sat with a handful of other homeless men on a bench, where he has spent his days since recently losing his home to foreclosure.
Lee, a 56-year-old Black man, spent a year incarcerated for a 2014 conviction for felony cocaine possession. Before his imprisonment, he said, he had voted in every election since he was 18.
“When the governor registered me in April, I was elated when I found out I could vote again,” said Lee, who spends his nights at a nearby homeless shelter run by CARITAS, which strives to help homeless people get off the streets and on a path to stability.
He speaks passionately about the need to reduce unemployment, pump more money into education, stem homelessness, take better care of the elderly and end mass incarceration of African-Americans.
“Voting – that’s one of your human rights,” Lee, who regained his right to cast a ballot on Monday, said. “That’s the most important right – to vote. Not being able to vote, that’s like having the right to speak taken from you.”
Gary Gately is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune and CBS News. This story has been updated since it was published. About the top image:Muhammad Assaddique Abdul-Rockman, a canvasser for the progressive group New Virginia Majority, chats with ex-felon Terrence McLaughlin, left, outside the bus terminal in early August in downtown Richmond. Photo by Gary Gately for Equal Voice News.
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