“canvassers from New Virginia Majority were fanning out across Virginia’s urban crescent, paperwork at the ready, hunting for newly eligible voters…They collected more than 100 applications. In one hour. In the rain.”
“People say it’s political. But for us, this is a moral issue and something that’s beyond any election cycle, beyond any candidate. It’s about giving a voice to a community that has felt voiceless.” - Tram Nguyen, co-executive director
Washington Post, Jenna Portnoy, 5/6/2016
RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s decision to restore the voting rights of more than 200,000 felons has set off a frenzied effort by advocacy groups to register them in the hope they can swing not just the presidential election but also state politics for the next decade.
More than 2,000 former felons have registered to vote in the two weeks since McAuliffe (D) signed his controversial executive order — many helped by the left-leaning New Virginia Majority, labor unions and the NAACP, as well as a hodgepodge of local and civic religious groups.
Neither of the major political parties nor the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are directly involved in the effort at this point.
But in the days after McAuliffe signed the order, canvassers from New Virginia Majority were fanning out across Virginia’s urban crescent, paperwork at the ready, hunting for newly eligible voters.
Because voters in Virginia do not register a party affiliation, it’s difficult to know with certainty which political party will gain from the registration drive. But most observers expect that former felons will identify with the Democratic agenda of criminal justice reform, higher wages, access to health care and paid sick leave. Estimates vary, but experts say one quarter to one half of the newly eligible voters are African Americans, who tend to vote for Democrats.
Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, dismissed Republicans’ suggestion. “People say it’s political,” she said. “But for us, this is a moral issue and something that’s beyond any election cycle, beyond any candidate. It’s about giving a voice to a community that has felt voiceless.”
Only a fraction of those eligible are likely to cast ballots on Election Day, but in a state with a recent spate of close elections, even a small number of new voters could affect the outcome.
And a new bloc of voters could decide not only the presidential contest in this swing state but also the winner of the 2017 governor’s race, who will have influence over the upcoming once-a-decade round of redistricting for state legislative and congressional districts.
One of those new voters is Phil Thomas.
He got caught with $20 worth of crack in a car almost 20 years ago, and long after he quit drugs, the charge haunted him, he said.
“Now I look back on it, it’s the worst mistake I made,” Thomas, 47, said last week while on a break from cutting grass at a public housing development in Richmond’s north side. “Because I’m getting old now, I’m realizing how important [voting] is.”
“Sanders and Clinton are talking about moving the minimum wage to $15, and that would help us,” he said. “Cruz and Trump, they don’t care about us. They just care about the rich,” he said, referring to the 2016 field before Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas dropped out.
Thomas didn’t realize McAuliffe’s order automatically restored his rights until an organizer from New Virginia Majority told him. He signed the registration form on the spot.
Nguyen of New Virginia Majority said her group has spent years in communities where they sometimes encounter one eligible voter for every one hamstrung by a felony.
A few hours after McAuliffe signed the order, canvassers were at a community center and firehouse in low-income Richmond neighborhoods to tell people that felonies — even for violent crimes — no longer meant permanent disenfranchisement. They collected more than 100 applications. In one hour. In the rain.
Virginia Republicans say they want to win over these voters, too, and regularly add newly registered voters to their outreach lists.
“There’s no reason whatsoever to presuppose anyone’s political affiliation, and this is the field we’re playing on,” state Republican Party spokesman David D’Onofrio said.
At the same time, Republicans in the General Assembly are fighting McAuliffe’s order. They hired Charles J. Cooper, a conservative lawyer who defended California’s same-sex marriage ban before the U.S. Supreme Court, to file a legal challenge.
They accuse McAuliffe of executive overreach and have made statements deriding the subjects of his order.
Barring felons from voting is no different from a poll tax or literacy test, McAuliffe said during the Richmond announcement on the south portico of the Capitol, where a gospel choir belted out “The Lord is Blessing Me Right Now.”
“Unfortunately, Virginia has had a long and sad history of actively suppressing the voices of thousands of men and women at the ballot box,” he said, his voice echoing off the white columns of the Thomas Jefferson-designed building.
... Karen Fountain, a New Virginia Majority staff member, who searched last week for eligible voters in a Richmond public housing development. Clipboards in hand, she called out to everyone she saw, “Are you registered, baby?”
“This is my proof right here,” she said, unfolding a newspaper with an article about McAuliffe’s order.
Within minutes, she attracted the interest of Louise Benjamin, 49, a petite breast cancer survivor who said an assault charge and other bad choices kept her from pursuing a career in nursing or child care.
Fighting back tears, she said winning back the right to vote eased the shame she had felt for years. “I’m emotional,” she said. “It’s a relief.”
Asked why, she smiled. “It’s important because you have a voice,” she said.
“We don’t like the way the world is, we can fix it.”