RICHMOND, VIRGINIA — “My grandfather, my father’s father, was a sharecropper in Muriel, South Carolina,” said As-Siddique “Muhammed” Abdul-Rahman, recounting the hardship his ancestors faced when trying to vote. “He’d walk from these farms — or he would ride his mule — and so I wanted to walk.”
It’s just after 8:00 am on Tuesday morning, and Abdul-Rahman is walking down Terminal Avenue in South Richmond, Virginia towards Hickory Hill Community Center, a polling place for the city’s eighth district residents. The road isn’t particularly busy, but there is no sidewalk and no shoulder, forcing us to retreat into a gully to avoid oncoming traffic. Terminal Avenue serves as a connector between East Belt Boulevard and Jefferson Davis Highway, a busy thoroughfare named for the Confederate war hero who is buried nearby.
Reflecting on the walks his relatives took in South Carolina, Abdul-Rahman said: “If they could do it, I could do it.”
His walk to the polls is only a mile long, but his journey to the ballot box started years ago. At 53 years old, Abdul-Rahman is voting for the first time in his life.
Virginia is one of a handful of states where a criminal conviction means the permanent loss of the right to vote. The state constitution empowers the governor to restore voting rights, but until this year none used it to offer blanket restoration.
Finally in April, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) made good on a campaign promise. Over the loud objections of state Republicans, he restored the voting rights of more than 200,000 convicted criminals who had served their time and completed parole.
At a late-night rally on Monday with Vice Presidential nominee and fellow Virginian Tim Kaine, Gov. McAuliffe called the law stripping the formerly incarcerated of their voting rights a “poll tax” specifically designed to keep black Virginians from voting.
Republicans sued McAuliffe to prevent those voters from participating this year. The state’s highest court sided with the GOP on a technicality, blocking all 206,000 potential voters from regaining their rights.
“I see voting, and us having a voice in a human society, as a human right,” said Abdul-Rahman. “The Fraternal Order of Police says that if you don’t vote, you don’t count. If you don’t vote you’re a no-count. That’s how they motivate their members to go vote. Well, I like to motivate my members and say, if it doesn’t mean anything, then why did they take it from you? And why did they keep you from having it?”
Thirteen thousand newly enfranchised voters had already registered to vote in the period between McAuliffe’s announcement and the court’s decision. Their registrations were invalidated by the court decision, but McAuliffe vowed to sign individual orders for all 13,000 people re-issuing their restoration of voting rights, in compliance with the court’s ruling. Abdul-Rahman is one of those 13,000.
“When I first found out Governor McAuliffe had restored the rights of 206,000, on April 22nd, I found out that night,” he said on Tuesday. “And I said, ‘Nah, nah, nah, he didn’t do that.’” His disbelief was short lived, though. “When I got home, I got to googling. And there it was. I immediately got on the state website and registered myself to vote. And I resolved that I was going to tell everybody.”
Since April, Muhammad has been reaching out to the community of formerly incarcerated voters and encouraging them to vote.
“I knew that the city’s electorate could be changed with just 500 voters,” he said. “Every time you register a new voter you change the electorate. Voting is power.”
The day after McAuliffe’s announcement, Abdul-Rahman took the state’s online class on how to register voters, and made it his mission to register every ex-convict he knew.
“I was going under bridges, I was talking to homeless folks, I was going to where these despairing people were,” he said. Without the backing of any well-organized GOTV and voter registration groups, Muhammad collected registration forms from hundreds of people.
Later that summer, someone suggested he reach out to New Virginia Majority, a progressive, non-partisan group overseeing one of the state’s largest voter registration drives. He walked into an interview with a pile of completed voter registration forms and walked out with a job as an organizer. Since April, Muhammad has personally registered more than 1,500 voters, more than half of them fellow former convicts.
Muhammad is a tall yet unimposing figure, with an easy smile and a pastor’s ability to immediately seize your attention. He shows all of his 53 years when retelling his family’s story, but is giddy as a schoolboy when the conversation turns towards his own plans to vote.
Just after 9:00 am, Muhammad emerged from the Community Center cradling the sticker that voters are given to prove they cast a vote. On election days, the internet is filled with selfies of people proudly wearing their stickers, before it’s ripped off and tossed in the trash. But Muhammad was simply staring down at the piece of paper in his hands.
“I’m saving it,” he explained, before starting the walk home.