RICHMOND, VIRGINIA — Fifty-year-old Robert Randolph will cast a ballot this November for the first time in his life. Since his teens, when he served six months in prison for a low-level drug distribution charge, he has been barred from voting due to a felony record.
“I did my time, paid my dues,” Randolph told ThinkProgress outside the Richmond barbershop he manages. “I was young and dumb and made foolish decisions. But when [my voting rights] were taken, it was like a part of me was taken. And when years passed, and I couldn’t get them back, I started to feel like, ‘Oh well, my voice doesn’t matter anyway.’”
Until this year, Virginia was one of just four U.S. states to permanently disenfranchise former felons. But Randolph and hundreds of thousands of other ex-offenders have been able regain their voting rights over the last few years, thanks to executive actions by Governors Bob McDonald (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D) that first made it easier for individuals to apply, then made the restoration of rights automatic upon release from prison, parole, or probation.
I feel that I’m part of the community. I feel that my voice is important.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to know I can go to the polls,” gushed Randolph. “I hope others can get this feeling as well. I feel that I’m part of the community. I feel that my voice is important, that what I have to say is important.”
But Virginia Republicans are taking the state to court on July 19 to try to roll back these changes, and restore the Reconstruction-era felon disenfranchisement law. The conservative officials are arguing not only that the governor’s order violates the state constitution, but that it hurts them personally. They told the court that allowing ex-offenders to vote in the 2016 presidential election would “dilute” their own votes, “injure” them, “and undermine the legitimacy of the election.”
“These ongoing, coordinated efforts to register unqualified voters have diluted Petitioners’ votes, created an illegitimate electorate, and threatened the legitimacy of the November elections,” their impending lawsuit states.
If their case at the Virginia Supreme Court succeeds, the governor would no longer be able to restore the rights of newly-released, and the thousands of Virginians who have already registered to vote could once again lose the ability to vote.
Republicans asked for the case to be expedited to prevent ex-offenders from voting in this November’s presidential election.
Who deserves to vote?
Gov. McAuliffe’s executive order in April restored the rights of more than 200,000 ex-offenders, allowing them to once again vote, run for office, and serve on a jury. Republican officials who are suing the state argue that many of those people — those who committed murder or sex crimes for example — should not win back their rights. The order has even applied to 132 offenders who have completed their sentences but have been deemed too dangerous to release.
But according to data from the Virginia Corrections Department, the vast majority of those covered by the executive order were, like Randolph, convicted of non-violent offenses.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law argued in an amicus brief supporting the governor that regaining voting rights helps ex-offenders reintegrate into society, and has been proven to lower their risk of committing another crime by at least 10 percent.
Only 20 percent of people whose rights were restored committed a violent offense. Most have been out of prison for more than a decade, and African Americans are disproportionately represented. Forty-six percent of the ex-offenders are black, though blacks make up less than 20 percent of the state’s population.
Both legal experts and the released Virginians themselves say the purpose of the law was just that: disenfranchise as many African American voters as possible.
“The majority of the people who can’t vote are black. I’m not being racist, it’s just true,” said Randy Tyler, a small construction business owner who had his voting rights restored this year. “They wanted to take our rights from us.”
In fact, the authors of the state’s original felon disenfranchisement law openly bragged around the turn of the century that their goal was to “disenfranchise every negro that I could disenfranchise.” Arguing that “the Negro” lacked “experience in the duties of citizenship” — due to centuries of slavery — delegates in the 1902 constitutional convention argued that black Virginians should not have the right to vote. Because they were barred from explicitly discriminating on the basis of race by the 15th amendment to the Constitution, the Virginia delegates had to find more roundabout methods to in their words “eliminate the darkey as a political factor.”
“It will be discrimination within the letter of the law.
Like other former Confederate states, they implemented poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses — theoretically neutral voting hurdles that disproportionately kept people of color from voting. On top of these laws, they dramatically expanded the state’s felon disenfranchisement law, which had previously applied only to a narrow number of crimes including treason. “It will be discrimination within the letter of the law,” boasted one of the delegates.
In the decades that followed, as lawsuits and civil rights battles swept away most Jim Crow voting laws, the felon disenfranchisement provision remained on the books in Virginia as well as in Kentucky, Iowa, and Florida. According to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, it denied voting rights to a full fifth of the state’s black population.
For ex-offenders like Randolph, it has meant watching elections go by without the ability to participate.
“It made me feel less than a man,” he said. “It made me feel like I was not a U.S. citizen. It made me feel less. I’ve been wanting to vote.”
Randolph’s father died when he was 10 years old, sending his family into a spiral of poverty. He said he joined a gang, and began selling small amounts of drugs to support his mother. “I thought that being a man was helping to provide.” After being released from prison, he went back to high school and got his degree. He became the manager of a barbershop. He has been married for 15 years, and while he has no biological children, he mentors a group of his teenage customers. “I believe God allowed me to go through everything I’ve been through so when the young men come to me with problems, I can let them know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I call them my sons and I look at them as my own.”
Randolph had his rights restored in 2015, after his boss and a woman at his church helped him navigate the new process set up by Governor McAuliffe. Today, he keeps his restoration of rights letter, in a silver frame, and his voter registration card on his barbershop stand.
“Every day I look at it, and I say, ‘Lord, thank you for giving me another chance,’” he said. “It keeps me from doing what I used to do, because now I can look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Robert, you are important.’ A lot of people don’t think that one ticket that goes in the [voting] box is important, but it is.”
From Confederacy to swing state
When signing the executive order in April to automatically restoring voting rights to ex-offenders, Governor McAuliffe said the action was rooted in the belief that “it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubled history of injustice.”
“Virginia has had a long and sad history of actively suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women at the ballot box,” he said. “[Voting] is the essence of our democracy. Any effort to dilute that fundamental principle dilutes it for all of us.”
But Republican officials immediately accused the governor of having political motive, noting that McAuliffe is an ally of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, the vast majority of ex-offenders are likely to vote for the Democratic Party, and a close presidential election is on the horizon.
Once a solidly conservative state, Virginia’s swiftly growing Latino community and other forces have only recently made the Commonwealth competitive, producing razor-thin victories for McAuliffe and other Democrats in recent elections. The long-time red state was key to President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories, and is considered a toss-up for 2016.
Theoretically, if all 206,000 ex-offenders registered to vote before the October deadline, they could decide who sits in the White House next year.
But since McAuliffe signed the rights restoration order in April, local organizers who have fanned out across the state have struggled to find and register ex-offenders. As of the end of June, just over 8,000 had registered. While individuals can search for names in the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s online database, a major barrier for volunteers has been the state’s reluctance to release a list of those who have regained their rights. The governor’s office has said the list is incomplete and contains some errors that are being corrected, and that releasing it could lead to misinformation.
Until that process is complete, organizers like Richmond native Karen Fountain are going directly to the streets of the low-income neighborhoods where ex-offenders are most likely to live, approaching people one by one with voter registration forms in hand.
Fountain, an organizer with the group New Virginia Majority, has been out registering voters six days a week, at churches, public housing developments, and shopping centers. On a recent Thursday, she stopped by the soup kitchen line at Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Richmond’s Jackson Ward.
“Are you registered to vote?” she asked a bearded older man in a faded polo shirt. He averted his eyes. “I can’t, I’ve got a record.” “Don’t you know that Governor Terry has restored your rights?” she asked. He blinked, taken aback. He didn’t believe her, but she came prepared, pulling news articles about the legal change from her clipboard. The man asked for a registration form, which she helped him complete, but he remained wary. “If I get in trouble for this, I’m going to come looking for you,” he joked nervously.
Fountain, who with her colleagues hopes to register many thousands more former offenders in the months to come, told ThinkProgress that the punishment of ex-felons should end after they fully serve their sentences.
“In our society, when you make a mistake, they don’t want to let it rest,” she said. “They just keep beating you and beating you over the head with it. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be helping them pull themselves back up.”