As of this writing, more than 61 million Americans have already cast their ballot in the 2020 election and election day is nine days away. It is projected that 156 million people could vote – the largest voter turnout in a century. It is loud and clear that in this election the people want their voices heard. But who is allowed to speak? The answer to that question varies greatly state by state.
the state of being deprived of a right or privilege, especially the right to vote.
A life-long Virginia resident, Terry Garrett didn’t know she had the right to vote. “I thought it was for white people. I had never seen anyone I knew vote and no one in my family had ever voted, so I never pursued it,” confesses Terry. Not knowing she had the right to vote, she never realized that a consequence of her felony charge was disenfranchisement. There are only two states in the Union, Maine and Vermont, that do not revoke a person’s right to vote due to a criminal conviction. In all other states, it is a tangled web of idiosyncratic laws and procedures to regain your right to vote once it has been taken away due to a conviction.
Due to differences in state laws and rates of criminal punishment, states vary widely in the practice of disenfranchisement. It is estimated that 5,177,780 Americans are currently ineligible to vote by state law, 2.3 percent of the voting age population. Although half of the states have scaled back voting restrictions for people with felony convictions, the others have retained such restrictions and their disenfranchised populations have increased commensurate with the growth of the criminal justice system. By this method, it is estimated that approximately 1.24 million women are disenfranchised in 2020, making up over one-fifth of the total disenfranchised population.
Taking away people’s right to vote — the currency of democracy — has a racist history in Virginia. In the 1880s and 1890s after years of political and economic prosperity for Black Americans, came political backlash in Virginia and the south. Facilitated by a newly elected administration, white supremacists steadily undid the reforms brought about by the previous government and replaced them with Jim Crow laws to oppress Black people. This effort culminated in a slew of criminal laws targeting Black citizens and disenfranchisement laws that denied voting rights to anyone convicted of a felony. These two trends set the stage for the mass disenfranchisement seen in Virginia today.
The impact of disenfranchisement falls disproportionately upon communities of color. African-Americans make up more than 50% of the state’s disenfranchised population, despite being only 20% of the total population. In Virginia, one in five African-American adults is disenfranchised. This means more than 200,000 African-Americans cannot vote. Only Florida has a higher number of disenfranchised African-Americans. However, recent reforms to the Florida law will leave Virginia with the highest number of disenfranchised voters of color in the nation within a few years.
While Terry was staying at Guest House, a volunteer and Executive Director, Kari Galloway, held a discussion about the importance of voting. It was a turning point in Terry’s life. “I wanted to shout. I wanted my voice to count. Before this I had never thought about it. But after learning how important it was and that I could be heard, I knew I had to do something to get my rights back.”
In Virginia those who are convicted of a felony cannot vote while in prison, on parole, probation, and even after fully completing their sentence. Only an act of the Governor can restore an individual’s voting rights. This is mandated by the Constitution of Virginia. Although there is a procedure that allows former felons to apply for restoration of voting rights, the process is complicated and intimidating—and there is no guarantee the Governor will act.
The process took almost four years, but Terry completed her probation and paid her restitution fees. The volunteer Terry met aided the women of Guest House, including Terry, with all of the necessary paperwork to restore their voting rights. The first time Terry submitted her paperwork she was rejected. Encouraged by Kari Galloway and the volunteer, Terry tried again only to be denied again. Upon getting the news of the second rejection, through tears Terry exclaimed, “I knew this wasn’t for Black people!”
In a hotly contested political battle, then Governor Terry McAuliffe took action to expeditiously sign over 13,000 petitions for reinstatement prior to the 2016 election. From a pool of 200,000 people waiting to have their right reinstated, Terry Garrett was one of the lucky ones. She got the news from Kari Galloway that she was eligible to vote. “Somebody believes in me. Somebody believes in the worth of my voice,” she said proudly.
This General Assembly session, Virginia lawmakers passed legislation to repeal many antiquated, racist laws that are still in the Virginia Code, such as the poll tax and other segregation laws. Lawmakers also passed laws to expand access to the ballot box, allowing no-excuse absentee voting, same-day voter registration and repealing strict voter photo ID requirements. The Commonwealth, which once embraced enslavement, condoned lynching, and maintained pervasive and crippling racial inequalities through segregation and discrimination, is finally taking baby steps to right the wrongs of history. Justice demands that we uproot the last vestiges of Jim Crow from our law, end the centuries-long oppression of Black people through felony disenfranchisement, and guarantee a right to vote that the government cannot take away from anyone.
Voting is a right, not a privilege.
You don’t lose your freedom of religion
or your right to due process upon incarceration,
nor should you lose your right to vote.
Statistics and charts do a poor job of addressing the real meaning of rights-restoration and clemency for the people who receive such reprieves, and for their families. Long excluded by and alienated from the political community, they feel a restored sense of faith. In Virginia, somewhere over 40,000 of the newly enfranchised citizens registered to vote. A 2016 study by the governor’s office showed that 46 percent of all of the newly restored citizens were black.
Guest House continues to host these presentations and provide the services for the women to get their tasks and paperwork in order to submit for the Governor’s signature. Terry Garrett, as well as other women who have successfully completed the process have been trained to help newer residents through the process. “I’m happy to help people learn how to get their rights restored or to help people in my community register to vote. Everywhere I go I tell people, ‘Please vote.’” Terry knows the urgency of getting women in particular registered to vote. “Men are deciding about our issues, our bodies. We need to stand up, get in office, and send the message to men that you don’t get to make these decisions for us. We need to vote!” She exclaims passionately.
⭐Research shows that individuals who vote after completing their sentences are half as likely to commit another crime as those who do not vote.
⭐Voting demonstrates a commitment to our democracy and an interest in state and community affairs. For former felons, it is one of the ways in which they can become engaged and invested in our society, thus aiding their full reintegration into society.
Terry Garrett cast her first vote at age 50, and has been transformed from a former felon unaware that she counted in our democracy to an active participant – voting in local, state and federal elections. She has parlayed her experiences into advocacy for the women of Guest House and the members of her community. She has been honored at the Virginia State House and uses her voice to let others know that whether you have served your time or were simply unaware that your voice counts – voting is a critical right to realizing your full sense of citizenship and participation in society.
Only through the generous donations of time and money do the women of Guest House experience these transformative events. Your donations facilitate all aspects of these women’s reentry process from professional skills, to addiction treatment that leads to personal rebirth, to assuring the important voices and points of view critical of all are heard. To support the work of Friends of Guest House, donate here. Your donation has the potential to change a life and shape a democracy. #VOTE
This blog relied heavily on the excellent writing and researching of several authors:
You are encouraged to read the complete articles. Text has been copied in its entirety as this author made the executive decision that when it has already been written so well and so clearly, there was no need to communicate the sentiment or the fact in a different manner. My gratitude for the wonderful, well-substantiated writing of the above sources in the completion of this piece.