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Nearly 200,000 Formerly Incarcerated Virginians Have Their Voting Rights Back. Will They Use Them?

by Margaret Barthel/WAMU

Just how many of Virginia’s formerly incarcerated people who did register to vote will head to the polls Tuesday and in next year’s presidential election is unclear. Jose Luis Magana / AP

Barbara Barrick had a long road to the polls in Virginia on Election Day last November. After she’d been convicted of a felony, she served two years in jail — and lost her right to vote. Then, that right was restored to her, by the only means possible under Virginia law: an order from the governor.

“I cried, because I was so proud to put that sticker on, you know?” Barrick says.

But Barrick didn’t initially know she’d been re-enfranchised; the paperwork went to her old address. “The only way I knew my rights were restored is because my wife’s rights were restored and I figured ‘hey, if yours are, why aren’t mine?’”

On Election Day, she sorted out the confusion, but she still hadn’t gotten her driver’s license back (until earlier this year, the state suspended driver’s licenses for people with unpaid court fines and fees). But she was determined. “I actually had to walk to my polling place,” she says. “And I damn sure well did.”

Barrick, who now volunteers with a community engagement nonprofit, is one of the nearly 200,000 formerly incarcerated people whose voting rights have been restored in the Commonwealth since 2016.

Virginia is one of just three states that permanently disenfranchises people with felony convictions — unless the governor steps in and individually restores the person’s rights once they are no longer under correctional supervision.

In 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) attempted to restore rights in one fell swoop — with an executive order — to more than 200,000 eligible formerly incarcerated people, but the move was blocked in the courts. Forced to handle rights restorations on an individual basis, McAuliffe nevertheless signed off on 173,000 in his term, the most of any U.S. governor in history.

As of October 2019, his successor, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), has completed upwards of 22,000 restorations since taking office. The discrepancy in the numbers, according to Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson, who has worked in both the Northam and McAuliffe administrations, is because McAuliffe cleared the backlog of restorations, while Northam has mostly been keeping up with them as people leave custody.

How many of those who did register will vote Tuesday and in next year’s presidential election is unclear.

Individuals typically don’t need to put in a request to have their rights restored. The Northam administration receives a monthly list of people who are becoming eligible, which Thomasson’s office vets to ensure accuracy.

There are some exceptions to the process. “When we’re doing that proactive work, we’re being fairly conservative,” says Thomasson, meaning that if the office can’t confirm that the person is eligible, they won’t restore their rights. In that case, individuals have to request the restoration themselves, via a web form.

Advocates say that people are often not aware that they can get their rights restored. Christopher Rashad Green, a formerly incarcerated organizer with the New Virginia Majority, spent several years trying to get the word out. “Still to this day, individuals still don’t know how simple the process is to get their rights restored,” he says. “There’s a lot of apathy and cynicism.”

And of course, administrative challenges can arise, too, as in Barrick’s case.

It’s hard to know how many people who get their rights restored register to vote — and then cast a ballot on Election Day. Thomasson says that’s data her office doesn’t currently have. But after the 2016 election, a state study found that just over 35,000 people who had had their rights restored had registered to vote, and more than 25,000 cast a ballot.

There are some efforts on the ground specifically targeted at getting out the vote among returning citizens.

The New Virginia Majority, a grassroots organizing group, does outreach to potential new voters who have had their rights restored and gets them registered. They estimate they’ve reached nearly 500 people in the past two years.

This year’s election has significant implications for criminal justice in Virginia, according to Green. He and other observers are paying close attention to a number of the Commonwealth’s Attorney races where progressive prosecutors are seeking election.

Green also is watching which way control of the General Assembly falls. After two years doing get-out-the-vote work and developing a court watch program in Chesterfield County, he’s recently been tapped by the New Virginia Majority to lead a campaign to change Virginia’s state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to people who have served their time.

He feels he’s come a long way from spending 15 years of his life in and out of the justice system. “Six years ago, I would’ve never thought I could actually be a leader — and lead this movement,” he says.

That effort hinges on Democrats commanding a majority in the General Assembly in the future, Green says. Earlier this year, a bill to rewrite Virginia’s laws to remove the ban on voting for people convicted of felonies and for people judged mentally incompetent died in committee in the Republican controlled General Assembly.

Some Virginia Republicans have claimed that Democratic governors have overreached their executive power in order to add more Democratic-leaning voters to the rolls. When McAuliffe first announced his rights restoration plans in 2016, Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment Jr. said the governor had “the acknowledged goal of affecting the November elections,” and characterized the plan as having “flagrant disregard for the Constitution of Virginia.”

For her part, Barrick doesn’t identify with a particular political party. “Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, I’ve never really been into that. I’m just into the issue, and how I feel it affects me, and my family, and my community and then my God,” she explains.

She does agree that the Virginia Democratic party’s support for rights restoration could be self-interested. “They think that all felons are going to vote Democratic. They didn’t actually do it for our benefit — they did it for theirs, in a way. I mean, that’s how you think if you’re cynical.”

Barrick brought a group of people from her church to a candidate forum on social issues hosted by Virginians Organizing for Interfaith Community Engagement on Oct. 20.Courtesy of Drew Colby

But that doesn’t mean Barrick is disengaged. On the contrary, she’s been evaluating the candidates in her local elections in Prince William County. Barrick recently brought a group of people from her church to a candidate forum on criminal justice hosted by Virginians Organizing for Interfaith Community Engagement. Her verdict? Mostly politicians being politicians. “You know, just ‘Oh yes, we’ll work with you, oh yes, we love our community,’ ” she recounts. “That kind of dribble drabble.”

She did like Democratic Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Amy Ashworth, who is running to succeed longtime Democratic prosecutor Paul Ebert. That was because Ashworth questioned plans to expand the county jail.

Despite sitting through what she called mostly empty political speeches, Barrick said she was glad she went. “The real power there was them seeing the energy from the community,” she said, estimating that there were five hundred people at the event, “all pumped up, like it was the World Series or something.”

Barrick is still in touch with many of the women she did time with. She says the vast majority of them are excited to vote, even if many of them are not especially familiar with the candidates or the issues at stake.

Voting is a lot deeper than the drama of politics, according to Barrick. It’s about finally feeling worthy again.

“Once it’s taken away from you and it’s like a label, like you are not good enough to vote…then when you get that back, it’s like, ‘hell yes I’m going to go vote,’ ” she says.

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