Virginia’s Governor made national headlines in April, when he restored voting rights to more than 200,000 ex-felons. But the backlash was quick and fierce. Republicans accused the Governor of misusing his power to sway presidential politics. Reports revealed rapists and murderers still in prison, whose rights had been restored, accidentally.
Since then, the debate has ramped up. But stuck in the middle are thousands of Virginians --- not all of whom are excited to vote.
Karen Fountain is a community organizer with the left-leaning New Virginia Majority. She's been registering voters throughout Richmond’s neighborhoods. The day we joined her, we visited Gilpin Court.
“That is a low-income neighborhood, basically,” says Fountain. “A lot of guys, and some girls, but more so men that have been locked up. It's still a lot that did not know that they have had their rights restored.”
Felons in Virginia are disproportionately black. Before McAuliffe’s order, 1 in 5 African-Americans in Virginia weren’t eligible to vote because of their criminal records.
Republicans say their opposition to the order has nothing to do with race, half of felons who have had their rights restored are white.
That’s an argument Fountain, and everyone we talked to in Gilpin Court, doesn’t buy.
“I know that it is about race. Now you say it’s about crime, with some people they don’t separate the two. I’ll just say it like that,” says Fountain. “They still want to keep African American men and the women down. Like it’s slavery time.”
Fountain says it's hard not to take arguments against rights restoration personally.
“I feel violated, even though I’m not an ex-offender, but because I’m an African-American,” says Fountain. “When you vote, and you make that check -- that’s your voice being heard.”
Fountain cruises the neighborhood, looking for someone she knows. Soon, a man named Andre West rides by on his bike.
West isn’t an ex-felon, but he knows this community well, and he's been helping Fountain connect with people and register them. West says the atmosphere in this neighborhood has changed since the Governor’s order.
“Most felons, they get into stuff, but now with their rights restored they can get out of trouble that they're in,” West says. “And people been doing things they should be doing, not things they shouldn’t be doing.”
Fountain is off, already chasing someone down. At first people treat her like a salesman, wary eyes, saying they're not interested. But she just laughs and smiles. She's persistent.
Around the corner, there’s a small crowd of men hanging outside an abandoned building, some are drinking. Karen brings up voting and elections and it taps into a tension.
“You don’t see anything! So sometimes I’m like, What's the use though?” asks Lee Vinson.
Vinson isn’t a felon, but he was raised in this neighborhood and knows many who are.
“They want you to go out there and vote, but we really don't see no changes though. I don't. I'm 52 years old, I ain't seen no difference yet though,” says Vinson.
As we're talking an older gentleman walks up, waving a card proudly in the air. His name is Anthony Crawford, and he voted in a primary for his congressman. Fountain registered him herself.
When he was young, Crawford says he didn't care about voting. Then, in 1992, he did 6 months for breaking and entering. Now, with the restoration order, he’s able to vote again.
“I didn't even know how to do it,” laughs Crawford. “I was walking around saying ‘Whatcha do? Watcha do? I said ‘This my first time.’ Lady said ‘Go round the back, on the other side. You know.’
Crawford says it's good practice for November, when he'll vote for Hillary Clinton.
Another of the men pipes up, he’s been standing to the side eyeing the microphone carefully. He didn't want to be recorded, or even have his name used -- he also has a felony on his record.
But he did make his point very clear: Even now that his rights are restored, he won’t be voting.
“My little one vote,” he says, “it isn’t going to make a difference.”
Governor Terry McAuliffe announced his decision back in April.
With soaring rhetoric, and executive force, McAuliffe stood on the front steps of Virginia’s imposing capital and tore down what he called the last vestige of African-American disenfranchisement -- a hundred year-old constitutional ban on felons voting.
“Unfortunately Virginia has had a long and sad history of actively suppressing the voices of many thousands of people at the ballot box,” said McAuliffe.
Many, though, think the Governor’s action has little to do with mercy, and everything to do with electoral politics. Richard Kelsey is a Virginia legal expert.
“Some people will tell you the politics involved in this aren’t so much race, as the politics of a national election and trying to drive out voter turnout,” Kelsey says.
Ex-felons are largely presumed to vote Democratic, and Terry McAuliffe has vowed time and again to do his best to help Virginia go blue for friend Hillary Clinton.
The Court Case
But a Republican lawsuit against the executive order doesn’t accuse the Governor of playing politics, it accuses him of overstepping his constitutional role.
“At the end of the day this really is, and should be, a straight legal question,” says legal expert Richard Kelsey. “What are the powers of the Governor and has the Governor overstepped those powers?”
Virginia’s constitution both denies felons the right to vote, and gives the governor the power to restore those rights. But first he must overcome an additional hurdle, says Kelsey.
“In each or every case in which he gives a reprieve, or a pardon, or restores rights, he reports at the end of the session the particulars of each case,” Kelsey says. “As it has been interpreted, since the beginning of time, that is a case by case restoration process.”
McAuliffe’s lack of a case by case analysis has upset not just politicians, but also Virginia’s lawyers. 43 state prosecutors, Republicans and Democrats, filed a brief in the case against McAuliffe. They’re concerned the order places the burden of reviewing individual cases entirely on their shoulders.
Jim Plowman a Commonwealth Attorney in Loudon County, has already discovered multiple mistakes in the Governor’s initial list.
“One individual was convicted of unlawful wounding, did all his time, attacked a family member later and was found not guilty by reason of insanity,” says Plowman. “He technically met the Governor’s criteria but to this day is still sitting in the state mental hospital.”
Mistakes like that prove why the Governor’s order should be overturned, says Virginia’s Republican Speaker of the House Bill Howell.
“You don’t have these mistakes made when you look at individuals on a case by case basis,” Howell says. “And the Governor would have to be accountable for the mistakes he did make, he can’t brush them aside as clerical errors.”
Whether McAuliffe’s order stands won’t affect just those errors, but also the more than 150,000 nonviolent felons whose voting rights now hang in the balance.