Story Publication logo April 9, 2015

What's in a Vote?

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The Pulitzer Center and The College of William & Mary continue their unique initiative to provide...

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Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court in Warrenton, Virginia. Image by Taber Andrew Bain via Creative Commons. United States, 2009.

At 8:00 AM, everyone looks the same. Everyone drives in the same dizzying traffic to make it to work. Weaving in and out of lanes to avoid traffic buildups, getting out of the car and walking into the workplace with two minutes to spare, earning a paycheck to ensure the daily necessities of life are taken care of. This is citizenship; the freedom to work, provide an income, and fit in with others who too live their lives normally.

But in Virginia, citizenship does not look the same for all people. Some fit the image of the average working-class Virginian perfectly while others live their lives day-to-day with double identities.

On the one hand, one man is like any other Virginian. He wakes up early in the morning to prepare for work, where he builds homes and office buildings on his construction job. After the day is over and the five o'clock traffic has ceased, he comes home to father his three children—two sons and a daughter—teaching them life lessons he hopes will guide them in being good citizens and making sound life choices.

Like any other evening, this 45-year-old tucked his children soundly in their beds on November 3rd, 2014. When he woke up the next morning, he was served a shocking reminder that despite his idyllic lifestyle and committed parenting he is not able to exercise all of the rights ensured to him as a citizen.

Because on this other hand, he is not a Virginian at all.

In May 1986, this man—brown-hued, medium height with a freshly shaven goatee—with a group of friends walked into a Quick N' Go convenience store on Tidewater Drive in Norfolk, Virginia, wearing a black hoodie and Reebok shoes. It was dark outside and they wanted two things: money from the cash register and to escape fast.

His friend had the gun, the silver weapon tucked at his waist and covered by his shirt. He too had a gun that he concealed when he entered the unassuming store-adorned in red and green LED letters today as it was during that fateful evening. The men rushed into the store, previously scoping the inside from their car to make sure no bystanders were present, and commanded the cashier to open the register. The cashier, with a gun pointed to his face, looked with sheer horror as he stared into the eyes of the assailants and obliged to the request immediately.

They tried to make a speedy escape. They ran out of the door, and because the car had already been started by another partner in the crime, they drove off within seconds. But the successful getaway did not last long. Only 17 years old, he was arrested shortly thereafter, and had to face a judge in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. He was sentenced to Norfolk Detention Home from 1988 to 1990 for the charge of armed robbery. In 1990, he was transferred to Greensville Correctional Center for four additional years.

In 1994, he was freed. But he was not a full citizen. He was not permitted to vote.

And today, over 25 years later, he is still trying to get that right back.

This story is far from abnormal. It is a common experience for many individuals left to border between the two, seemingly irreconcilable worlds of citizenship and non-citizenship. Some 450,000 Virginians are disenfranchised, unable to vote in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Like hundreds of thousands of other African-American males in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the group who robbed the store and many of these other former felons bear the consequences of laws that, according to Managing Director of the Advancement Project, Edward Hailes, "were created to keep slaves disenfranchised after the passage of the 15th Amendment."

"Virginia is one of four slave states that created laws originally set to make it harder for African-Americans to vote coming out of slavery," Hailes explains.

Nineteenth century voting restrictions have morphed into the 21st century so effectively one in five African-American adults is barred from voting in Virginia, one state out of four that permanently disenfranchises its citizens.

Politicians have not been blind to this inequity. In May 2013, former Governor Robert McDonnell announced a plan to remove the mandatory two-year waiting period for nonviolent offenders to restore their right to vote. His successor, Governor Terry McAuliffe contributed to McDonnell's initiative by reducing the waiting period for violent offenders from five years to three years and halting the classification of drug crimes as violent offenses. For violent offenders in the current administration, they must wait three years and pay all court fees before beginning the application process to restore their voting rights. Governor McAuliffe recently announced that the violent ex-offender application would be shortened from 13 pages to one page and the requirement of notarization letters would be eliminated for violent offenders. For non-violent ex-offenders, there is no waiting period; they must fill out an online application for automatic restoration of rights, not be under any form of correctional supervision, and ensure that all court costs are paid.

But these changes have not resulted in full access to the ballot box.

Part of the reason for this, say experts, is the myriad of challenges ex-offenders face as they re-enter mainstream society. Some individuals who come out of prison with a trade are more able to adapt into society than those without. Many ex-offenders struggle with self-sufficiency and financial recovery when they come out of prison because "If you're checking on a box that you've got a criminal history, that automatically makes you an underclass citizen," says ProfessorRebecca Green, director of Revive My Vote, an organization branched at William and Mary Law School designed to walk ex-offenders through the process of restoring their voting rights.

When one exits the doors of a correctional institution, the doors of citizenship are not widely opened. Individuals who come out of prisons are "more concerned with more immediate needs," she says, such as food and housing, seeking a job, and reapplying for a driver's license.

And as the 45-year-old who now builds homes and office buildings explains, there is the major challenge of simply trying to fit in socially.

"I was trying to adjust to a society I was very unfamiliar with…the dress code and how you conduct yourself at work were things I didn't know about. I wasn't used to the atmosphere," he said, asking that his name not be used to protect his family's privacy.

There are various programs in correctional institutions that seek to better prepare ex-offenders for life outside of prison. Hailes recommends "proactive outreach while persons are in prison so that they will know how to navigate the process [after prison]." But a Virginia Performs study reports that programs like these have been in a continual state of decline since 2000. The economic downturn has hindered in-house outreach and education programs so much so that a RAND study found that national spending on prison education fell by six percent between 2009 and 2012. State spending decreased even more.

Virginia CARES, Inc., the Commonwealth of Virginia's only statewide provider of reentry services, seeks to transition ex-offenders back to normal life in their communities through providing immediate assistance in securing food and housing, as well as employment assistance and restoration of rights help. Organizations like Virginia CARES offer ex-offenders a network of support in order to prevent a cycle of criminal activity.

Mark Listes, the William and Mary law student who developed Revive My Vote, sees the getting the right to vote restored as intimately linked with the other, seemingly more pressing, concerns of ex-felons. Although some may see getting a job as a priority over restoring their right to vote, for instance, applying for the right to vote may be viewed as a step in the right direction by a potential employer.

"When talking to their employer, they can tell the employer that they have taken the steps to restore their right to vote," Listes says.

But ex-offenders, before they can make up their minds to apply to vote, must know that they are able to restore their voting rights. Listes recalls a time during outreach where he was communicating with 60 formerly incarcerated persons and "all but five knew that this was a process that they could go through."

"Outreach is difficult," he says. "A big part of this work is advocacy and letting people know that they can get their rights back."

Workers with Revive My Vote run a hotline where people can call in twice a week to get assistance throughout the process.

"So many people are told that once you have a felony conviction, you will never be able to vote," says Hailes. In addition, the actual process of getting rights restored is "not well known by those who are coming out of prison."

This has been true for the man who had to stand before a criminal court judge at 17. The process always seemed too daunting to focus upon, he says. He wasn't sure of the criteria, and believed that he needed to wait years before petitioning the governor.

"Voting is the language of our democracy…It is a power dynamic and makes everyone equal before the law," according to Hailes. However, before ex-offenders can see themselves walking into the ballot box, they must stay out of trouble. The ex-offender's entry to the voting booth has been prolonged since his first exit from Greensville Correctional Center because of more felonies.

There is general agreement that recidivism declines when ex-offenders have the right to vote restored. Hailes believes that "it is something about being a full-fledged member of society that keeps persons on the right track," assuming that the right to vote is as much a financial, sociological, and physical issue as it is a psychological one. Several studies across the country show that restoring the right to vote is successful in reducing recidivism.

One of which is a 2011 study from the Florida Parole Commission that found that the overall three-year recidivism rate for the state of Florida, the state with the highest number of disenfranchised African-Americans, was 33.1 percent, while those who were able to vote had a recidivism rate of 11percent. Research has also shown that states that automatically restore the voting rights of its citizens upon release see rates that are 10 percent lower than permanent-disenfranchisement states, like Virginia under current laws. Restoring the vote and its connection with recidivism is a widely contested link, but advocates like Listes and Hailes suspect that it exists, and in wide measure.

In the same way that there are challenges facing the ex-offenders in getting their right to vote restored, there are similar problems facing the administration responsible for restoring the right to the hundreds of thousands of eligible Virginians. There once sat a stack full of papers in the offices of the executive. Requests from formerly incarcerated persons seeking to re-establish their lives and regain a sense of normalcy overflowed in the Commonwealth's Restoration of Rights Division. This scene has now changed ever since the process to restore rights has been electronically streamlined but the circumstances certainly have not.

Grassroots organizations like Revive My Vote have seen firsthand the delays in the arduous process of enabling individuals to vote once again. Professor Rebecca Green has witnessed what she calls a "huge logjam" in the Restoration of Rights Office. Individuals who have sought the right to vote can end up waiting for over a year because of understaffing issues, but the requests continue to come in.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney is in charge of the restoration of rights process. Coming into the office amidst Governor McAuliffe's decision to lessen the burden on ex-offenders by reducing the waiting period, Secretary Stoney sees the problem in delay.

"Every time the governor holds a press conference… the next day, we end up getting inundated with requests to get rights restored," he says.

While the Governor's outreach efforts are in place to inform the public about the new policies, the overflow of prospective voters has presented problems for the infrastructure of the Governor's office. Since the announcement of Governor McAuliffe's initiative, Stoney says "the hurdle that we encounter more and more is the capacity to handle the requests…staff-wise."

While getting the word out to the community through grassroots organizing and word-of-mouth is one of the Secretary's primary modes of communicating the opportunity to those eligible, he unhesitatingly admits that the demand often exceeds the supply of employees. Thus, a year of delay may continue to be the trend until the staffing issues throughout the administration are resolved. The Secretary anticipates an uptick in applications and thus, a greater contest between staffing capacity and eligible voter requests.

For violent offenders, he believes "the thirteen page application was a huge barrier to restoring rights. By removing that barrier, more and more people will apply." With a focus on the grassroots level—the individuals Secretary Stoney believes will get the word out—coupled with an increase in the number of prospective applicants, only time will tell how the administration will handle the overflow of applications with the current backlog due to understaffing.

The way to ease the process for the hundreds of thousands of Virginians eligible to vote, many feel, is through the Virginia legislature amending the state Constitution to ensure automatic restoration of rights. The executive is still optimistic despite eight failed attempts at Constitutional amendments—such as HJ 21 during the 2014 session that would "authorize the General Assembly to provide by law for the restoration of civil rights for persons convicted of nonviolent felonies who have completed service of their sentences, including any period or condition of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence, subject to the conditions, requirements, and definitions set forth in that law."

"Restoration of rights should be automatic. Individuals pay their debt to society and should be back into society. We have one of the most restrictive voting rights restoration processes. That's where Virginia needs to go," says the Secretary. "There are 46 out of 50 states in 2014 that agree that this should be handled [via a Constitutional amendment]. There are four holdouts."

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