RICHMOND, Va. — Thousands of Virginians will not be voting in the congressional midterm elections on Tuesday, not because they’re not interested in politics, but because they lost their voting rights after a felony conviction. The Commonwealth is one of only four states that has permanently denied voting rights in such cases.
In 1980, 2.6 percent of Virginians were affected by felony disenfranchisement. By 2016, that number had grown to 7.8 percent, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice reform. That comes out to more than 500,000 voters.
Christopher Green, 58, lost his voting rights in 1998 when he was convicted of a felony in Virginia.
“I found out I was disenfranchised for life because of it,” Green said. “Even if I had wanted to vote … I wouldn’t have been able to.”
After spending half his life in and out of prisons, Green was last released in 2013. He made his way to Richmond, where he became aware of a voting rights restoration movement. In 2016, Green’s civil right to vote was restored.
“I had seen a message for where my life was headed and that was to serve other people,” Green said. “The message was so clear.”
Green now works as a political organizer for the civic-participation group New Virginia Majority. In this role, Green focuses on criminal justice reform for the organization’s Court Watch program.
“The (criminal) system is slanted not towards rehabilitation, but towards punishment,” Green, who works with the New Virginia Majority to tell his own story while encouraging civic engagement from marginalized communities, said.
“I’m passionate because I never want to forget where I came from,” Green said. “I know I was one of the ones fortunate enough to make it through all of that and come out, not un-engaged, but empowered.”
Felony disenfranchisement has its roots in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Last adopted in 1971, the constitution strips the right to vote from citizens convicted of a felony, unless the governor restores their civil rights. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell began to push for the restoration of voting rights in 2013 by working to amend the laws that affected non-violent felons.
Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe continued the push for the restoration of rights during his term, including an announcement that he would restore rights to 200,000 disenfranchised citizens.
In 2016, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled McAuliffe would violate the constitution by restoring voting rights en masse. His administration then announced a way to systematically review cases that allowed McAuliffe to restore the voting rights of more than 150,000 Virginians on an individual basis.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam expressed interest in further developing and institutionalizing automatic voting rights restoration during his run in the 2017 gubernatorial race
“We’ve been asking governors for over a decade to restore more people’s rights and understand that this is a holdover from the Jim Crow era law that disproportionately affects African Americans by a very wide margin,” Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the American Civil Liberties Union, said.
In Virginia, 21.9 percent of African Americans are disenfranchised based on felony records. After Kentucky, that’s the second largest percentage of the African American population who are disenfranchised in a state, according to the Sentencing Project.
“We have to fight the ingrained ... institutional and systemic racism that has affected every aspect of people’s lives here in Virginia,” Green said.
In Virginia, incarceration rates exceed the national rate. The rate of African American individuals incarcerated in 2010 was more than every other race or ethnicity combined, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on exposing the harm of mass incarceration.
Green’s fight starts with mobilizing communities who haven’t had a voice in the past.
“Boots on the ground for two straight years,” Green said. “I basically advocated and went to churches and to all the housing projects, wherever disenfranchised people were.”
Farrar and members of the ACLU are lobbying to ensure that everyone above the age of 18 in Virginia has the basic right to vote.
“What we’ve come to realize is that the problem is not that people are disenfranchised. It is a problem, but the problem is that we do not have in the Virginia Constitution a guaranteed, unabridged right to vote,” Farrar said.
By addressing cases of felony disenfranchisement individually, the government is deciding who makes it to the polls.
“What the government is saying is that we are going to privilege some people’s right to vote over others,” said Farrar. “We’re going to deny it if we don’t like you and we’ll maybe give it back if we want to.”
Due individual state laws, voting rights in one state do not ensure your voting rights in another.
“When I moved from Illinois to the Commonwealth of Virginia, I brought with me an individually enshrined right of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to bear arms. I had to register to vote,” said Gary Flowers, a political analyst and radio personality.
For citizens with felony convictions, it’s even more difficult to maintain those voting rights from state to state.
“There are 51 separate electoral systems for voting in the nation. There are 367 county systems and over 13,000 municipal systems,” said Flowers. “What does that mean? That means that in every one of those jurisdictions: there’s a different ballot, there’s a different procedure for counting the votes and there’s no appeal to authority.”
With each state enforcing different voting regulations, citizens nationwide face different civil consequences for convictions. Two states, Vermont and Maine, have no laws against active prisoners voting. Another 18 states allow citizens on parole or probation to register to vote. For citizens of the four states that disenfranchise permanently, the effect is isolating.
“It makes me feel like I am a guest in someone’s house,” said 19-year-old Hayden Gouge. “I don’t have a voice.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students from the project reported this story.