Standing before a mostly black audience at 31st Street Baptist Church, Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s voice boomed with authority.
“For me to stand there as the 72nd governor and erase 114 years of racial injustice to do the right thing,” he said — “I will tell you it was the greatest day of my governorship.”
The Democrat was referring to his April 22 executive order restoring voting rights to 206,000 people who had served their sentences after been convicted of felonies.
McAuliffe is standing firm for what national commentators call a remarkably bold and controversial move. Virginia was one of only four states that left the Jim Crow limitation on voting as a lifetime stigma that affected blacks more than whites.
His timing was curious, considering the elections in November. Republicans were quick to attack, saying McAuliffe abused his legal authority by nullifying an entirely legal constitutional amendment without consulting the General Assembly or holding a referendum.
GOP leaders said McAuliffe’s order was a brazen and cynical attempt to help his close friend Hillary Clinton who badly needs to win the swing state of Virginia.
The governor said it was about justice, not politics — that he merely was taking the moral high ground to undo a 1902 stricture whose only purpose was to keep blacks from voting. He produced data showing that most of the people whose rights he restored were convicted of nonviolent crimes and finished their sentences a decade ago.
Republicans aren’t buying it. “The delayed, incomplete and unverified data by Governor McAuliffe in no way excuses his reckless decision to restore the civil rights of violent offenders and flagrant violation of the constitution,” House Speaker William J. Howell said in a statement.
He says that 40,000 people convicted of violent felonies will be allowed to sit on state juries. He and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment have retained lawyer Charles J. Cooper to challenge McAuliffe’s order in court.
While the squabbling continues, activist groups are racing to register the new voters, such as the New Virginia Majority. Its co-executive director, Jon Liss, says that disenfranchising the formerly incarcerated had a “clear racist and anti-democratic intent” when a state constitution was amended in 1902. “Subsequently,” he says, “the ‘truth in sentencing’ and so called ‘war on drugs’ resulted in the mass incarceration of thousands of Virginians — disproportionately African-American.”
Gary E. Ellis, voter registration coordinator with the Virginia Department of Elections, registered voters at the RVA Earth Day Festival in Manchester on April 23, the day after McAuliffe’s announcement.
“I believe there were a couple felons who registered,” Ellis says. “All they have to do is fill out an application and it takes about 30 days.” Full rights won’t be restored to released felons if restrictions remain on them, such as if they’re on probation.
Conventional wisdom goes that newly registered voters are certain to vote for Clinton. But not all of the former inmates interviewed by Style and others said that Clinton has their vote should she win the Democratic nomination.
One Henrico County man, who asked not to be identified, says he plans to vote for likely Republican candidate Donald Trump. “We don’t need another eight or four years of gridlock in D.C.,” he says. “Trump is a negotiator.” The man received a four-year suspended sentence 11 years ago for selling a ring at a pawn shop for a friend. He says he didn’t know it had been stolen and served five months in jail.
Style spoke with several former inmates who explained what restoration of rights means to them. Three were recommended by the Richmond community group Opportunity, Alliance, Reentry, or O.A.R., which helps formerly incarcerated people transition back to society. Two people were found through other sources.
Here are their stories, as they told them to us.
- Scott Elmquist
Bonnie Parker, 50
When I met Sandra [Antoine, who worked for Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney], I gave her a short testimony on my life. And I told her that, you know for 15, 20 years, I made a mistake and wasn’t able to vote. So I tried to get my rights restored and it just so happened I met her in Padow’s, [the restaurant where I work], and we formed this bond, and she was like, “I work for them.”
And I was like really, can you tell me the steps so that I know what to do, so that I can be able to vote? And so she told me just give me your information, and she gave me steps and everything and I did it.
Every job I’ve been on, I’ve been a supervisor. And I was at Burlington Coat Factory and one of the ladies that was over me, I allowed her to use my information, my code, to go into the safe. Some things happened and they came and picked me up. And I was classified as a felon because it was well over $200. I was a mother of five. I was a single mother of five, and things just went downhill from there and I wasn’t able to vote.
So me and my husband, we tried several times to try to get my rights restored and it didn’t happen. My husband died four years ago and on the third anniversary of him, Levar brought me those papers. He did not know. He brought me those papers to my job at Padow’s on Broad Street. I’m able to vote now.
Being able to vote, I went in and I started working with the voters. I’m a [voter precinct] chief now and I have my own site. So, that’s how it happened. Just by Sandra coming in and talking to me every day at Padow’s and I begin to tell her my story.
I missed out on so much because I wanted to vote for Obama. I wanted to vote prior to, and I couldn’t. They did not give me the opportunity to say this is what happened to this case and this is what followed up. I was just classified as that felon, so I didn’t have any choice but to just sit out, because you’re not allowed to.
And when he brought me those papers, I have pictures where I just cried.
- Scott Elmquist
Jeffrey Gunn, 55
I’ve been out six or seven years. I was in on a firearms felony. It was illegal. It wasn’t registered in my name. I was just stopped at a roadblock and it was found. I was working at a printing company at that time. I was just coming from work. I bought it off the street. It was a .380 semiautomatic.
I was in federal prison at Petersburg. It was, this doesn’t make sense, but it was actually comfortable. Being incarcerated was quite comfortable. The same rules apply though it’s more of a structured environment. It was minimum security, low security. I wasn’t there a full year — let’s say six to eight months.
I returned to society and I connected with O.A.R. and I just got back into the work force. Losing my rights was more of an emotional thing and self-worth. I think to be redemptive citizens it’s something that is essential. And I really didn’t care about politics at that point because I couldn’t vote. I was somewhat knowledgeable.
When the governor made his announcement, I was very pleased. It gave me a chance to somewhat restore a part of my dignity — being able to vote again and I feel like I can be a part of change.
Right now I am a dishwasher prep cook. I live in the downtown area. I have one son who is 36.
In November, who will I vote for? Yeah, yeah, Democratic Party. Is Donald Trump in the Democratic Party? I don’t know where he at. He all over the place.
- Scott Elmquist
Domonique Pervall, 32
So I heard [about the executive order] the exact same day. Actually, I found out via Facebook. When I heard it, it was just a sigh of relief. It felt like a burden was being lifted up off of my back because of how long and how many times I have tried to have my rights restored.
I was convicted of my first criminal charge ever in my life, which happened to be a felony charge, at the age of 20 years old. Once I was released from jail and I had done my probation, I tried to have my rights restored years ago, and I found out that my fines were too high. So it took me a few years to make a payment arrangement to pay all my fines.
Once my fines were all paid off, I tried to have my rights restored for the second time, but there was a problem with my Social Security number. It wasn’t the number that I was given at birth. Somehow, between my arrest warrant or somewhere down the line, there was a problem with my Social Security number. I went and took care of that and applied for my rights a third time.
There was a young lady who worked for Levar Stoney in restoration of rights and I gave her the paperwork. She lost it or somehow, my paperwork got lost. So, those were the three attempts that I personally tried myself to have my rights restored.
I’ve helped a lot of people get their rights restored and I’ve pointed a lot of people in the right direction, but still was faced with challenges myself. I was active for a good two or three years with the Richmond NAACP and with the Richmond Crusade for Voters and I have worked with [community activist] J.J. Minor.
I was 19, 20 years old. I was a young man pretty much, as I like to say, trying to find my way. I grew up in the inner city. I grew up in Church Hill and I’m electrician by trade. But even though I was in an apprenticeship to become an electrician, a lot of my friends in Church Hill were selling drugs. Just being caught up in that environment that was around me, it was not something that I needed to do. It was just something that seemed like everyone else was doing it, so I did it.
It was just a youthful mistake, something I should have never done. But I was convicted with two counts of possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute and I was pretty much a product of my environment. It was nothing I needed to do to make ends meet.
It’s the first time in my life I really felt free. God is a god of second chances.
Dawn Jones, 48
I got in trouble for forgery, uttering and obtaining money under false pretenses. I was dating a guy who did not have a valid ID and he was given a personal check to cash for a job he did. I put the check in my account and signed the back of the check and put it in my account and gave him the money because he didn’t have an ID.
The lady that wrote the check pressed charges because all of the work was not complete, and because it went into my bank account and I signed the back of it. I was charged. It happens all the time.
This was in 2008. I was in prison five years and four months. I visited all of them. I started at Fluvanna and in Goochland and I was shipped to Deerfield.
What was it like in prison? Not good. You are treated like caged animals. Very impersonal. Impersonable. Was there violence? Oh, absolutely. Guards versus prisoners and prisoners versus prisoners.
I got out in December 2013. I stayed in Richmond. I have family overseas. I am from overseas — Germany. My Dad was in the military and I stayed here.
I connected with O.A.R. like the next day after I got out of prison. I went through their program and about four months after I got home, I was offered a part-time job. And then, April of last year, I was offered a full-time job.
I think restoring rights is very good. It hasn’t affected me yet. I am currently still on supervised probation, so my rights have not been restored yet, but they are working on it as we speak. I am hoping to be off within the next month — it’s been in the courts since February.
Restoration of rights is a great milestone and even though it doesn’t affect me at this present moment, I am hoping that I can hear from somebody over the next month so it will affect me and that I will get my rights back so I can feel whole again. I feel incomplete.
Some people can’t get certain types of jobs after prison. I can actually work in the medical field because I don’t have a drug charge.
What about the man who got me in trouble? I have no idea. This took place in a two-year period. We had stopped seeing each other two years prior to this and I have had no contact with him at all.
Who will I vote for? Hopefully, I will register to vote, and if I was able, I’d probably vote for Hillary.
- Scott Elmquist
Sherwood Hartso, 48
I was incarcerated for driving on a suspended license. The last time I was convicted was in 2001. I had failed to pay fines. I was young and just hard-headed — I didn’t want to follow the rules. I had a traffic accident. I left the scene of an accident, so I was convicted of leaving the scene of the accident. That’s a felony.
I was sentenced to three years but I only did 45 days in Richmond City Jail. Three years of probation. I got out in January 2002. I didn’t have a job as soon as I got out. It took a little while to get employment. I first connected with O.A.R. in 1995.
Losing my rights affected me bad because I was doing security work. I’ve had security jobs all over the city as a security officer. It took my livelihood because I didn’t have any other experience besides security work. I had to go into construction work and restaurant work. Some were less paying, some weren’t.
Restoring my rights means that if I get my rights back, I can fill out applications and have a good shot at getting employed. It takes that categorism off of me. If you’re a felon you can’t do this, if you’re a felon you can’t do that. Now it means I can be a normal citizen.
I’ll vote if I find out my rights are restored. I’ve gone to 1100 Bank St. and I asked questions at the voter registration. I don’t know if I have to fill out a lot of papers. I don’t know the process. I don’t know how long it will be for.
If I had the opportunity, I would probably vote for Hillary.