In the wake of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to former felons, the Arlington chapter of League of Women Voters and the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice are teaming for a voter registration drive for former felons on Saturday, July 23. The registration drive will be held from 1 – 5 p.m. at Macedonia Baptist Church, located at 3412 S. 22nd St., Arlington.
Any Virginia citizen who has committed a felony, served their jail or prison sentence and has completed their parole or probation supervision is eligible to register to vote in Virginia after Governor McAuliffe signed an executive order in April restoring rights to such citizens. And the Arlington chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Northern Virginia National Association for Blacks in Criminal Justice are inviting potential voters who are former felons to see if they are eligible to vote and register to vote if they are eligible ahead of Virginia’s October 17 voter registration deadline.
“The governor granted former felons their [voting] rights and we want to be part of that,” said Karen Kimball, a member of the Arlington chapter of the League of Women Voters. While an appeal of a court challenge of the governor’s action is expected to be ruled on by next week, the plan is to push ahead aggressively in the meantime.
“For somebody who was imprisoned and gets out and serves their probationary or parole time, the best thing is to get them back into society as voting citizens because that’s part of the rehabilitation process. And it also makes them feel like citizens of the community they live in and so they feel they have a part in what is happening,” Kimball said.
The two organizations which are hosting this voter registration drive were connected through their shared desire to play a role in expanding the voting franchise to former felons, which was given a boost after Governor McAuliffe’s executive order. “When the Governor signed his executive order, it was a step toward justice for my organization,” said Mondrè Kornegay, president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Association for Blacks in Criminal Justice.
“And for [Karen] and her group it was a step toward inclusion because they are hoping to get as many people to vote as they can. Our goal is to help people get past what happens to them when they’ve been in the criminal justice system.”
Kornegay said that “everyone has a price for their poor choices,” but forcing former felons to carry around that stigma for the rest of their lives creates second-class citizenship. “And so often those second-class citizens are people who are of African-American descent and that’s a big issue for us,” Kornegay said.
“We know that when you can go and you can say I voted for my councilmember, I voted for my president, I voted for my governor, I can run for office if I want to and I’m part of the process, then I’m no longer a second-class citizen. And we can’t afford to have those levels of citizenship because it keeps us apart instead of bringing us together.”
The organizations have pulled together more than 30 volunteers for the event to help former felons walk through the process of finding out if they are eligible to vote and registering if they are eligible. Kimball said that she’s read about former felons having trouble navigating the website in place for letting people know if they are eligible to vote. Serving as a form of voter education, one of the two missions of the League of Women Voters, there will be a representative of the Virginia Restoration of Rights Office on hand to answer questions potential voters might have.
“Having a representative from the Restoration of Rights Office is just going to be critical,” Kimball said.
Any potential voter who needs a photographic form of identification will be able to get one on the spot at the July 23rd event from Bill Sands of the Arlington County Voter Registrar’s Office. Sands, the outreach coordinator for the Arlington Office of Voter Registration, said that “he was more to happy to help” when called upon to help with the July 23 event. “Some people don’t know that when you go to vote on November 8 that you have to have a qualified photo ID,” Kimball said.
Governor McAuliffe’s move to restore voting rights to former felons follows a 2013 move by his predecessor, former Governor Bob McDonnell, to streamline the civil rights restoration process for nonviolent felons. McDonnell signed an executive order when he was in office that removed the application process for individuals who were convicted of nonviolent felonies and have completed their sentences and eliminated the two-year waiting period for voting rights restoration.
But this latest effort, which is taking place in a presidential election year and was spurred by McAuliffe, former chair of the Democratic National Committee and a longtime political ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, has generated more profile and resistance. Judicial Watch, an organization based in Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit against Governor McAuliffe in hopes getting his executive order struck down by the courts. A court decision on that suit is expected in the coming week based solely on whether the governor has the authority to make such a ruling.
Kimball said that the burden should be on the opponents to explain why former felons shouldn’t have their voting rights restored, especially since many of them are decades removed from the crime that led to the loss of their rights.
Don Gurney, also with the League of Women Voters, said that the whole idea of prison is to help people to reform and rehabilitate themselves and not giving them the right to vote once they’ve done that is holding them back from being a productive member of society.
“What comes to mind for those who think that it’s not appropriate is if they are without sin, then they can cast the first stone,” Kornegay said. “But all of us have made mistakes that could have landed us in some really big trouble and if we haven’t made them, then our sons and daughters, or parents or uncles and aunts have made them.
“It’s a human frailty to make mistake and we’ve become such an unforgiving and judgmental nation. We can not progress with that mindset. It’s not healthy. So we need to do this. This is not for someone who keeps getting arrested and they’re not trying to make a go of their lives. It’s very, very difficult to get through the process of incarceration or probation/parole supervision and be off paper for three years or more. Most of the people that we’ll see, they haven’t had a problem with the law for five, ten or 20 years. So why should they be treated differently?”