Deborah Gentry did her time and probation. "Why are we still waiting to be citizens?" she asks.
'There's no such thing as an ex-felon," says Jim Shea. "You're a felon for life." Shea had his voting rights restored in 1989.
photo by Lisa Provence
Governor Bob McDonnell's May 29 announcement of automatic restoration of voting rights to non-violent felons brought accolades from both sides of the aisle, as well as from those who've sought to ease Virginia's punitive stance toward ex-convicts.
But some in McDonnell's own party do not share his– and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's– enthusiasm for allowing felons to vote. And some felon-rights activists say the measure doesn't go far enough.
"We're one of the worst states," says Virginia Organizing's Joe Szakos. "We're one of the few states that don't automatically restore voting rights. In some states, you can vote in prison."
Between 350,000 and 450,000 people in Virginia can't vote because of felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project, a national reform organization, which also estimates that felony disenfranchisement prevents one in 13 African Americans from voting.
In Virginia, that number is an eye-popping one in five African Americans who are barred from casting ballots, according to Hope Amezquita with the ACLU of Virginia. She estimates that 100,000 people could be affected by McDonnell's measure.
Currently in Virginia, non-violent felons must wait two years after serving their sentence, parole, and probation, and after paying fines, court costs, and restitution in order to apply to get their voting rights restored. For violent felons, it's a five-year wait– assuming no additional felonies are picked up along the way.
McDonnell's proposal eliminates the two-year wait and makes the process automatic.
"For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes," says McDonnell, "they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights."
While the ACLU and Virginia Organizing commend McDonnell's efforts, they'd like to see them go further. The ACLU, for instance, "strongly opposes" the requirement that felons must pay fines and court costs before restoring voting rights. "We consider it a poll tax," says Amezquita.
As for how many people will benefit from the governor's new plan, that depends on how one defines "non-violent" offender in Virginia.
"Except for possession, every other drug crime is a violent offense," says Amezquita. "One of our primary objectives is to ask that those drug crimes move from the violent to the non-violent list."
Janet Kelly, the secretary of the commonwealth, has until July 15 to implement McDonnell's order, and she's working with groups like the ACLU to come up with a new plan. Kelly did not respond to phone calls from the Hook.
Some reform advocates are uneasy that McDonnell's executive order could be overturned by a future governor. Yet prospects are dim for getting the General Assembly to amend Virginia's constitution, which grants power for restoration with the governor. A constitutional amendment calling for automatic restoration of voting rights would have to be approved by the General Assembly– twice– before going to the voters. And legislators haven't shown the same enthusiasm for a constitutional amendment on felon voting rights as they did, say, with the 2006 constitutional amendment declaring marriage a man-and-woman only enterprise.
A bill that would have allowed automatic restoration of non-violent felon voting rights passed the Senate this session 30-10, with local Republican senators Tom Garrett, Bryce Reeves, and attorney general candidate Mark Obenshain all in the no column. The bill then died in a House of Delegates subcommittee.
"I do not support automatic restoration of voting rights," says Delegate Rob Bell. "I believe the current process of a case-by-case review is a better way to determine who's turned their lives around and who's still getting in trouble."
Jim Shea is one of those who got his life– and his voting rights– back together after a felony conviction for bail jumping stemming from anti-war protests in the late '60s. Even with college degrees, he found the process daunting and didn't have his rights restored until 1989.
And Shea also faced the problem of employment. "I was an educated white man looking for work," he says. "What about low-education people?"
Certainly a felony conviction is another obstacle to finding work that hits blacks particularly hard. The Justice Department reports that 37 percent of the jail population is black, while African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population overall. A few weeks ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against BMW in South Carolina and Dollar General, accusing the companies of using criminal background checks to indirectly discriminate, according to the Washington Post. Maryland passed a "ban the box" law that removes the felony conviction question from state employment applications.
At Charlottesville's largest employer, applicants who want to work at UVA must disclose both misdemeanor and felony convictions. "Prior conviction is not an absolute bar to employment here, but it is among the factors that may be considered when reviewing an application," says UVA spokesperson McGregor McCance.
For Shea, the fact that felons must appeal to the governor to vote is a remnant of Jim Crow. "In 1901, [Virginia legislator] E. Carter Glass put it into the constitution specifically to keep blacks from voting," he says. "This was a racial thing from the beginning, and it is right now. One in three of the black men in Charlottesville can't vote. It's the new Jim Crow."
"The ACLU of Virginia has long taken the position that the restoration of voting rights is a remnant of Jim Crow," says Amezquita. "It's a relic of our past we're not proud of in Virginia."
"I don't want to take anything away from Governor McDonnell," says Shea, "but I don't want to overstate it either. McDonnell has restored 1,500 a year. That's way more than his Republican friends." Or Democrats, for that matter.
Deborah Gentry is one of the founders of a group called Believers & Achievers, a support group for ex-inmates. She's says she's appreciative of what McDonnell has done– even though it's been seven years since she did her time for what she says were non-violent offenses– and she's finally eligible to apply for restoration.
She works as a cleaner at Covenant Church, where she's also a member, and admits there's something she can't figure out about the existing system.
"When you've already done your time and paid your dues," she muses, "you continue to be punished."