Branded: The fight to restore voting rights
The poll tax. Literacy tests. Terror at the ballot box. All of these are voter suppression methods synonymous with the Jim Crow South.
But today, in 2023, a vestige of Jim Crow still lurks in Virginia’s Constitution: Felony disenfranchisement.
Virginia is one of only three states that permanently strips people with a felony conviction of their right to vote. And the power to restore that right rests in one person’s hands: The governor.
In a special one-hour program, reporter Mallory Noe-Payne brings us one man’s story — and how it weaves with decades of history.
Listen to Branded, a special documentary from Radio IQ and Virginia Public Radio.
Meet John Campbell, the Third
The first thing I want you to know about John Campbell, the Third, is that he loves clothes. He has about 40 hats and more than 50 pairs of shoes.
“I give away clothes, but I got a lot of clothes. I got a lot of real expensive clothes. Because I don't have a lot of money to always run it every time they change style,” John admits. “So I got my own style.”
He calls his style classy, old-school 1920’s mixed-up. He always matches, from his shoes to the towel he carries to dab his forehead. His hats are hand-made. Soft and heavy. Often with a rooster feather stuck in the side, because that’s what Chicken George on the TV show Roots used to wear. His style icon was a famous novelist from Detroit.
“He used to dress real real impeccable, real, stylish real because he was a pimp and wore a lot of loud clothes and stuff.”
But his first style icon was a man of different character: his grandfather.
“My grandfather was named John Campbell the Senior, my daddy’s named John Campbell, Junior, and I'm named John Campbell, the Third.”
John Campbell, Sr. was a deacon from Richmond’s Jackson Ward. John Campbell, Jr. was a World War II vet. And John Campbell, the Third, born in 1949, grew up in a house in Church Hill with all of them.
“My sister, my brother, my daddy, my mamma, my grandmamma, my granddaddy, and an uncle. All of us lived in one big house,” he recollects.
John remembers his grandfather as a humble and quiet man. They had a garage in the backyard and on the weekends they would sit there together.
“I never heard my dad to tell me he loved me. But my granddaddy used to tell me. My granddaddy used to show me.”
One of the things he showed him was how to dress. His grandfather would come home after his day job as a roofer dressed in jumpsuits and coveralls.
“The first thing he did was took a bath and put on a white shirt, a pair of pants, and dress shoes and everything. And I used to love that. And I took his style. So that's what I've been doing most of my life. I think that's why I really got to wearing pretty clothes.”
John learned early on that when you look good you feel good. And sometimes that’s what you had to do.
“Look good, smell good and you’ll feel good. Right? But it also sometimes, it’ll cover up how you really feel. Hurt. Pain. Sad. Low self-esteem.”
Feelings tied to growing up Black in a segregated city.
“You couldn't imagine the psychological stuff they go through. Every day by just being a black man in this society. They have to humble themselves to, and not express how they feel sometimes. Because sometimes it may come out like in anger. It might come out in hurt, pain. But they don't like to talk about the pain and the hurt and the sadness that they feel deep down inside. So they cover it up,” John explains.
At least that’s what John did. With those pretty clothes… Cadillac cars… Diamond rings... And eventually, the drugs that went along with it all.
“Little did I know that was going be a terrible journey for me in my life,” John remembers.
A journey that would result in years cycling in and out of prison. Felonies on his record. Losing his right to vote.
Virginia and the history of felony disenfranchisement
Virginia is one of only three states with a constitution that permanently strips citizens with any felony conviction of their right to vote, and the only one of those three states that today doesn’t have a clear and public process for how someone can get that right back.
It’s estimated that it impacts 12% of voting-age Black Virginians. That’s more than 1 in 10 not allowed to vote.
“There has always been a desire to exclude people from the ballot,” says Carla Laroche, a professor at Tulane University Law School.
She says Virginia’s first form of government was democratic, but barely. To vote you had to be white. You had to be a man. And you had to own land. Over the years suffrage slowly expanded but almost always with one particular exception-- criminals. And not just any criminals, but people who had committed “infamous offenses.”
Now barring people who’ve committed serious crimes from participating in democracy is an ancient concept, going back to Greece and Rome. The idea is straightforward enough: You’ve broken these rules of society, so you don’t get to participate in society.
It’s such a given that it impacts how we judge people who are “criminals” today. Laroche calls it the Just World bias. “And so people associate the crime, being bad, with the person being bad. And so there as a result, a person who was convicted of a crime is less deserving.”
But in the United States, it isn’t just this bias that prevents people with criminal records from voting. It’s how this theory became twisted after the Civil War when white supremacists began to look for legal ways to block Black people from the ballot box.
There were obvious choices: Making people pay to vote, or pass ridiculous tests. And then there was that tool of exclusion that had already existed for decades: Not letting criminals vote.
“And then that exclusion was amplified after the Civil War,” Laroche says.
So this thing that wasn’t initially racist became racist.
Virginia broadened its list of disenfranchising crimes to include things like loitering, being homeless, even being unemployed.
“The goal was to target Black men,” Laroche argues, “to put them into jails and prisons, so that they could work for free, like in the slave antebellum era, as opposed to access to economic opportunities, and the ballot box.”
This tool of making up a crime, charging someone with a crime, and then using that criminal charge to strip them of the power to vote was effective in part because the U.S. Constitution allowed it.
The 14th Amendment said a citizen’s right to vote could be abridged if they had participated in quote “rebellion or other crime.” It was actually language meant to make sure Confederate traitors could be barred from voting. But then, says Laroche, it was weaponized by those very traitors against Black citizens.
“Once it became apparent that this ‘other crimes,’ vague language, could apply to other crimes. It blossomed and allowed racist people in power to exclude Black men and then after 1920 Black people from the vote.”
There was really no attempt to hide what was happening. In 1902, Virginia passed what became known as the infamous Carter Glass constitution, a racist document that set up the Jim Crow system.
“And Glass explained ‘Discrimination? Why that is exactly what we propose to remove every black voter who can be gotten rid of legally without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.’ The goal was, yes, they were bodies in our state, but they can't actually vote.”
And boy did it work. Black voting dropped by a whopping 90%.
We know what happens next. Decades of Jim Crow. That eventually ends with the Civil Rights Movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
So In the 1970’s Virginia leaders rewrote the state constitution one last time, eliminating those racist vestiges of that 1902 Constitution that were no longer legal.
But you know what wasn’t erased? What was still legal? Because it had that ancient history that predated Jim Crow, that Just World bias folks could claim wasn’t racist? Criminal disenfranchisement.
Virginia still opted to take away someone’s right to vote if they had a felony conviction right at the time that John Campbell, the Third, was 24 years old and being released after serving time for his first felony.
John had landed himself in prison as a teenager.
It was the 1960’s and he was attending a segregated high school in Henrico County. But he loved to come into the city where, he says, everything was fast.
“Everything going on. Playing craps, shot houses, whiskey houses, dance houses and everything,” he remembers.
On the weekends he’d bring his classmates into the city to shop. They’d hang out around 2nd Street, a place where Black musicians and movie stars had stayed-- Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Redd Fox.
“It was like the Black Mecca,” John remembers fondly.
He was drawn to it. He remembers, standing around with his group of friends, watching some older fellas.
“And I used to see these old dudes standing around nodding, standing by their cars, Cadillacs, nodding. Diamond rings, real clean. I said ‘Man what them dudes doing?’ They said ‘Man them dudes shooting dope.’”
He went right up to them and said, I want to feel the way you feel.
“So that started me and a few of my friends off. And that was the worst thing I ever did in my life,” he admits.
He was 16. And he was hooked.
Then, in the summer of 1969, John remembers the day clearly, he had been using for about three years and looking for cash.
“And I see an insurance man come, going to collect money in the projects. So I just got him. I said ‘Man, I got a pistol. Go ahead go on. Give me your watch and your money and go on up the street.’”
He robbed the man of 100 bucks and a watch. And a lady down the street saw and turned him in to the police.
“And I knew her kids and everything. But that’s how the game goes.”
John was convicted of highway robbery, a violent felony. He got 25 years with 10 suspended. He was 19, caught up in a web that wasn’t ever going to let him back out.
Virginia the outlier
Since 1970 Virginia’s jail population has increased 800%. Since 1983 the state’s prison population has more than doubled.
And thanks to felony disenfranchisement policies, that rise in imprisonment goes hand in hand with a rise in disenfranchisement.
Research has shown a link between mass incarceration, and voter suppression. The communities where Black people had been kept from the ballot box before the Voting Rights Act are the same communities where Black people were incarcerated at higher rates after the Voting Rights Act.
“Cities that had been known to discriminate and to exclude and to terrorize black individuals who attempted to vote, those cities heightened their mass incarceration,” law professor Carla Laroche says.
Laroche calls it the creativity and determination of white supremacy, rearing its ugly head in the mid-20th century, just as Jim Crow faded.
“So that connection is still there," Laroche says. “There’s still that ‘let's use the criminal legal system for what we can no longer do directly.’”
Chris Uggen is a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. He works with the Sentencing Project to issue periodic reports on voting restrictions across the country for people with felony-level convictions.
He says something many people forget is that having a felony conviction doesn’t always land someone in jail. Often they serve a shorter sentence and then are on probation or parole. Or they never serve a sentence at all.
“They are living in the community, they are raising their families and going to work et cetera,” Uggen says. “And still have this record.”
And in many cases the final piece of that punishment isn’t probation or parole but owing money. Court fees, fines, restitution to the victims.
“This is a huge problem for people with records because just like the number of felonies has grown, so too has the number and amounts of monetary sanctions that have been imposed. And so many folks are in debt and they have little ability to pay off such debts.”
Uggen says it is wildly out of step with the rest of the democratized world to not let someone vote again post incarceration. “There are very few nations where people who are not in prison are disenfranchised. That's very unusual, and the United States is an outlier internationally for our practices.”
So within the world the U.S. is an outlier. And within the U.S. Virginia is an outlier. The state has one of the highest disenfranchised rates in the country impacting not just Black voters. About half of Virginia’s disenfranchised population is white.
In 2018 I covered an election for a House of Delegates race that was perfectly tied. 11,607 votes to 11,607 votes. The winner of that single seat, determined what party had control of the statehouse. And they chose that winner by pulling a name from the bowl.
When we block an entire group of people from voting, Uggen says we weaken democracy. “If you've ever been an outsider in a group, you know, that's a lot less comfortable and you make fewer contributions to that group than if you are brought inside. And so we're suffering a loss by just these blanket prohibitions on millions and millions of people and we have for a very long time.”
The first no
John Campbell, the Third, learned a lot in prison. He learned tips for shoplifting. How to make corn whiskey. One of the things he learned was that he didn’t want to go back.
“So older people that was locked up and been there 20, 40, 50 years, they used to tell me ‘Buck, you better slow down man. Don't get caught up and hooked to this cause this gonna be a revolving door. You’re gonna be back and forth. Because you got a number.’”
He served six years for his highway robbery charge. He had been a kid when he went in, 19, and he was still young coming out, 24. He told himself “I got a chance. I gotta act like an adult.” He set out to get an ID, a driver’s license. And register to vote.
But remember, this was about three years after Virginia leaders had rewritten the constitution, keeping in in the criminal disenfranchisement clause.
“I went to DMV got my ID and everything, cause I was trying to do better,” John says. “I realized I couldn’t vote when I got out of the penitentiary in ‘74.”
It was at the DMV where he asked about a voter’s registration card and was told “no. You can’t vote, you’re a felon.” And nothing felt more like being an outcast then that moment. He says, that was that. It was the first no, but not the last.
“Every time I went to look for a, job and stuff: ‘You ever been convicted? Yeah. What it was? Highway robbery. Oh no’ So my low self-esteem got lower. That was that,” he remembers. “I said I just gotta go back to the game and I just went back to the streets.”
John went on to spend decades sick with addiction. In and out of jail, stealing to support his habit. He says he was never offered rehab.
Who knows what would have happened if he had gotten his voting rights back. But no one can make a better guess than him.
I asked him if you go back to that 24-year-old self in 1974 and say you were given your voting rights back right then. Do you that would have changed things?
“Back then? Yeah. ‘Cause I probably would have went to school,” John says. “See, I ain’t no dumb ----. I got it late. If I had gotten it when I was 24, with my rights. Then, ain’t no telling where I’d be today. I might be in politics small time. A member of city council. Ain’t no telling. Because at 24-years-old back then, I was a young Black man that came up in segregation. That didn’t read what happened to Black people. But seen it. And I always thought or had some hope that if you get your rights back it’ll change. But it don’t. And it didn’t, he says.”
“I had a number, my first penitentiary number was 095517. That was on my clothes on my back, down my legs on my pants. On my coat that I wore. So I was like, branded.”
An unlikely ally
While John cycled in and out of prison a stream of different Governors cycled in and out of Virginia’s executive mansion. Each with a different idea of whether and how voting rights should be restored.
In 1970 Virginia rewrote its constitution, with the core goal of renouncing the white supremacist legacy of the old constitution. But they left in language that disenfranchised anyone convicted of a felony.
“It says any person convicted of a felony loses the right to vote for life, unless a governor chooses to give it back to that person for whatever reason that the governor chooses to,” Claire Gastenaga explains.
Gastanaga was director of Virginia’s ACLU from 2012 to 2021 and Virginia’s first female Chief Deputy Attorney General. She watched as Governor after Governor, Republican and Democrat, re-interpreted this power. “This whole system was quite opaque. There wasn't a lot of staffing attention given to it. So it was it was hard,” she remembers. “There were certainly no guarantees. And that was incredibly political.”
This process, that many Virginians relied on for their fundamental right, was held captive by the political winds of any given day. Keep that in mind, as we go through how things have changed over the past 25 years.
“As governor I was deferential to the constitution,” Jim Gilmore says. Gilmore was in office from 1998 to 2002. During that time folks had to fill out a lengthy application if they wanted their voting rights back.
“So I chose a standard that said that a person who got out of prison and lived successfully without any further violations and did something that showed that they were a good citizen in the community, then I would grant clemency and the restoration of rights,” he says. “But if I didn't get some decent standard of the applicant, then I would not.”
The application process was the standard for the next two governors, although each would update the requirements and put increasingly more effort into restoring more rights. Mark Warner, a Democrat, restored rights to about 3,500 people. Tim Kaine, another Democrat, told me his goal was to restore more than any Governor before him. He hit about 4,500.
But keep in mind, there were hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised people in the state.
Gastanaga says during this time, the early to mid 2000’s, Democrats like Kaine and Warner felt reticent about being labeled too progressive, or pro-criminal. “And anti-law and order by doing anything that remotely sounded or looked as if they were doing the right thing by somebody who had been previously incarcerated.”
Around this time Gastanaga and the ACLU began to lobby for a different approach-- all-in-one restoration that didn’t rely on considering individual applications but just set up an automatic process when someone was released from prison.
“We wanted everybody who walked out the door to get their rights back,” Gastenaga says, “and we wanted an executive order that said everybody walks out the door gets their rights back and they don’t have to apply and they don’t have to do anything.”
Kaine remembers this. But he says his legal counsel advised him such a thing was against the Virginia Constitution. “The advice that I got from my team, and this is the same team who had helped me restore a whole lot of voting rights was a blanket order for unnamed individuals is not consistent with the governor's clemency powers,” Kaine says.
But then the issue found an unlikely champion-- a Republican Governor with a tough on crime reputation named Bob McDonnell.
“His law and order creds were unassailable,” Claire Gastenaga notes. “And so he had political flexibility that the Democrats didn't see themselves as having.”
Speaking to me today, McDonnell says his Catholic faith played a big role in his thinking on the issue. And he figured he’d take advantage of his political reputation. “And I felt that, you know, as a former prosecutor, former attorney general, tough on crime guy, I had a lot of credentials, if you will. Or a lot of grace and political capital built up, that if I took on this issue of restoration of rights, which people thought was a Democratic issue, that I could probably do a lot.”
He set out to streamline what he says was a laborious process. For those who had nonviolent felonies and had completed their sentences and met other criteria, including being off probation or parole AND paying off all fines, those folks would automatically get their rights back. “So that it wasn’t just an ad-hoc process,” McDonnell explains.
McDonnell’s administration restored just over 8,000 people’s rights. “You know I still today hear from people. It brings tears to my eyes sometimes people will stop me that I’ve never seen, never knew. And they say ‘Governor you know you restored my rights,’ and they tell me their story. And I’m very moved by it.”
Still, he stopped shy of what the ACLU was continuing to push for. Full blanket restoration. That would happen under the next Governor. And it wouldn’t be without a fight.
Restoration speeds up
Around 2016, I started to report on Virginia politics.
Bob McDonnell had finished up his term and Democrats gained control of the executive mansion with businessman Terry McAuliffe. Republicans held control of the legislature. Speaker of the House Bill Howell had yielded power for more than a decade. He was strongly conservative.
McAuliffe chose to focus on rallying the base rather than trying to compromise with Republicans. “McAuliffe is doing his own political calculus where he's working really hard to energize African American voters,” Claire Gastenaga explains. “And this huge issue for them.” This being restoring voting rights to convicted felons.
The ACLU was still pushing for a blanket order, executive action that just restored rights to everyone in one fell swoop. And in Governor McAuliffe, they found someone willing to take the legal risk.
My goal was ultimately to get to the point where we joined 41 other states in America, where it's some automatic process,” McAuliffe says.
McAuliffe asked experts the same question other governors had asked: Do I have the legal authority to do this?
He remembers the day his Secretary of the Commonwealth, Levar Stoney – now Richmond’s Mayor - got an answer back from lawyer A.E. Dick Howard, who had written Virginia’s 1970 constitution. “I remember I was in a meeting in the governor's office in the conference room. Levar came in. He burst into the meeting, which he rarely did. He said ‘I got to talk to you.’ I went back into my office and he said ‘I just talked to A.E. Dick Howard. He said unconditionally, you have the authority.’ I said will he put that in writing to me? And he said ‘I think so.’ He called him back. And Dick Howard said ‘Absolutely I will.’”
So they began the laborious process of compiling data, a list of more than 200,000 people. Only a few people knew what was about to happen. On a sunny day on the steps of the capitol, Terry McAuliffe signed the executive order.
I was there. I remember it well. Here’s a clip from a story I did.
David Mosby of Richmond dealt cocaine, a couple of times, but his record has been clean for almost 15 years. He was present at the governor's signing of an executive order restoring Mosby’s right to vote. “I’ve always been kind of sad and down that I couldn’t ever vote and I never actually tried to get my rights restored because I was just dealing with everyday life and trying to take care of myself and my family. But now, it is a huge, huge difference. And I will make a difference and I will go and vote," says Mosby. "It’s going to be amazing, I’m probably going to cry -- I was up there shedding tears as the Governor was talking.”
But Republicans in the legislature were not happy. They led an effort to block the executive order. The Supreme Court of Virginia stepped in and declared McAuliffe’s actions unconstitutional. Because he hadn’t considered each case one-by-one.
But McAuliffe wasn’t done. “I said ‘get boxes of pens. Get a desk and chair. We're gonna go stand in front of the Virginia civil rights statue in front of the governor's mansion. And I'm gonna sign every one myself.’”
So he re-restored each person’s voting rights individually. Including, John Campbell, the Third’s.
John had been in and out of jail for three decades. But in 2007, he was tired. “But I also made a decision. I say, I'm not gonna die in this prison. And I'm not gonna die laying in the street. So enough is enough,” John remembers.
He stopped using and he hasn’t been back to prison since. “I had to disrupt all the thoughts that I have to break it up in my head to do and wash it out and put something else there. But I had to find out what was really my gift that God gave me so I could use it and use it in a way to helping others.”
He was able to get on disability and Medicaid. With the steady checks he got himself a life skills counselor. Moved into federally subsidized housing. He made it his mission to help others who live in his apartment building. And then in 2016, when McAuliffe was Governor. John finally got his voting rights back.
He remembers the hype over the issue was increasing and volunteers were everywhere in the city, trying to sign people up. “City Hall, Broad Street, Cary Street, Social Security building. Everywhere. All the schools everywhere. They had the clipboards,” he recounts.
But John remembered how it had been in 1974. The way it felt to be told no. That feeling had stuck with him so much that he had never applied again. And that’s what he told the folks with the clipboards. No thanks, he’d say.
“Then they kept on saying ‘well why not? At least you could sign up and get your rights back and say I’m a voting person, I’m a citizen.’ I just said I dunno. I ain’t trying to disrespect you none. What I've been through, it ain’t gonna do me no good. They said ‘no you ain’t lost. You're still a human being. Sign up!’ So I signed up.”
There’s this phrase I heard John use all the time. A constructive, productive citizen of the United States. He says voting started to make him feel that way again.
A chance for permanent change
After McAuliffe, the ground had shifted.
A process was set up that technically wasn’t automatic but sort of was. The next governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, took it even further, expanding eligibility to people still on probation and parole.
But despite the progress, after years of constantly shifting goal posts, there were still many people left behind. Claire Gastanaga recalls having that realization. “Because we figured out that you would never catch up.”
Meaning that the true battle for fundamental change – lay in the legislature. “We need to just pass a constitutional amendment says people have a right to vote for that can't be taken away,” Gastenaga remembers.
Senator Mamie Locke, a Democrat from Hampton, came to the General Assembly in 2004. At the time, Senator Yvonne Miller, the first Black woman to serve in Virginia’s General Assembly, would introduce a bill every year to change Virginia’s constitution. “It seemed to be like every year that she would propose it and every year we would get rejected,” Locke remembers.
When Miller died in 2012 Locke took up the mantle. Every year since she’s proposed changing the state constitution to get rid of what she sees as one of the final vestiges of Jim Crow election suppression. “I actually tried to tell my colleagues that it was all a part of the Jim Crow plan and the Jim Crow legislation.”
I asked how many of those conversations she’d had over the years? “Oh, hundreds, hundreds,” she responds. “And it's become more routine. And they become less, because I think I just don't want to waste my time doing that, when I know that it is a complete and total waste of time.”
Changing the state constitution is no easy task. Both houses of Virginia’s legislature have to pass the amendment, in the exact same language, two years in a row. But not just any two years. Two years separated by a legislative election. Then, if the amendment gets past that hurdle, it’s still not final. It goes to the voters in a statewide referendum.
Then, in November 2019, after years of pushing something happened that changed everything: Democrats gained control of both legislative houses.
“It was like Oh my God, I think we could have a chance here,” Locke recounts. “I think we have a chance here to actually get this done.”
Under Democratic control, the amendment narrowly passed the House for the first time. It also passed the Senate with some Republican support. Locke was hopeful. She felt they were on the verge of victory for the first time in a decade.
Then November 2021, that hope was dashed. What shifted between 2020 and 2021? “A gubernatorial election and a House election, where the House shifted to Republican control,” Locke notes.
Republicans had regained a narrow majority in the House of Delegates.
Delegate Todd Gilbert became the new Speaker of the House. Speaker Gilbert’s office declined multiple interview requests from me on this topic. But his spokesman emailed me saying the Speaker opposes blanket restoration because he opposes restoring voting rights to people who have not paid their restitution or court fines in full.
Locke says that’s just a poll tax. “My goal is to have the governor not have a role in this process. No fines and fees. And that voting is a right that cannot be abridged by law.”
In 2022, under Gilbert’s leadership, the amendment went before an unrecorded subcommittee of Privileges and Elections where it was shot down on a party line voice vote. I sent interview requests to more than 50 state lawmakers who had voted against the amendment in the past, all Republicans. I got zero responses.
Locke says she will continue to push. Why? Because her parents and grandparents were kept from the ballot box and she says this is no different.
“They're still finding and implementing ways to impose upon what is very clearly a right, that I'm entitled to and other people are entitled to, and that people fought and died for, and that was put into a constitution as a clear voter suppression method under Jim Crow,” Locke says. “I want it out of that document. And I want this to be the vehicle by which it is taken out of that document.”
A.E. Dick Howard is that lawyer who was the main author of Virginia’s 1970’s Constitution. Today, he’s in his 80’s and he told me the inclusion of the criminal disenfranchisement clause was a lapse in judgment. And the time to repair that lapse has long since passed.
Restoration slows down again
While Senator Mamie Locke and others were continuing to fight the battle to change Virginia’s Constitution, the process of restoring rights through the Governor’s office was rolling along. But outside groups began to notice drastic changes.
Back in July, Virginia’s NAACP began pushing to understand what was happening in the Restoration of Rights office. Because there had been a noticeable shift.
Sheba Williams and Richard Walker, longtime activists who have helped thousands apply to get their rights restored, were some of the first to raise the alarm.
“We kept getting phone calls,” Walker says. “Folks were calling and asking what was going on?”
By the time Democratic Governor Ralph Northam had left office Walker says they were seeing a turnaround time of a couple weeks with restorations. But under new Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin they were getting calls from people they had helped apply, who hadn’t gotten a response in weeks.
Sheba Williams tried to set up a meeting with then Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James, whose office is in charge of the process. They didn’t get a reply for months and then right beforehand the meeting was canceled and wasn’t reset.
“They are they're completely in contrast to the other administration. And I've worked with the other administrations closely,” Williams says.
Asked what that meeting conversation might have included, Richard Walker has an emphatic response. “We wanted to know what the process was!”
So what happened? It was confusing because, at first, the Youngkin administration seemed to be processing restorations the same way as before. Initially the office issued a press release announcing restorations to more than 3,000 people. Numbers on par with what you’d expect if they hadn’t made any policy changes.
But through my reporting I learned not everyone was pleased with that announcement. Todd Gilbert, Republican Speaker of the House, contacted the Governor’s office after that big round of restorations. A spokesman for the Speaker confirmed that Gilbert had wanted to see if all those individuals had paid the monetary parts of their punishment.
The McAuliffe and Northam administrations hadn’t required fines and fees be paid in full before voting rights were restored. But Gilbert opposed that position and made it clear to the new Governor.
It was soon after that Williams and Walker started to notice the slow down. And for months after, there were no more public releases. Then, the administration finally made another announcement. About 800 had been granted over the period of five months. Those numbers were a huge drop, suggesting a very different process.
And yet there had been no press releases detailing a policy shift. And Williams and Walker couldn’t get answers as to what the new set of criteria was. Williams did notice changes in the online application though.
“This administration has placed on their application a question about whether or not a person has been convicted of a violent conviction. They have put another question about whether or not a person owes fines and fees. And they're asking for them to upload proof that they have paid all their fines and fees, which becomes a barrier if you're doing a drive,” Williams says. Because some people don't have that information. A lot of people don't have that paperwork.”
Williams and Walker continued to sound the alarm. Finally, a letter from Secretary Kay Coles James went public. And in it she wrote the office was no longer restoring any rights automatically, that they were considering applications individually and looking at “the unique elements of each situation, practicing grace for those who need it.”
“They said they operate by grace. But grace is something that can be fueled by emotion. Grace can be fueled by whether or not you think a person serves a certain party,” Williams argues
“When you look up the word grace, in definition, it says: Favor given by God. That's one of the entries,” Walker adds. “And I'm like, is he indicating that, you know, he's trying to play the role of God in providing grace, you know? And that just goes along with him not having no concrete process.”
I requested an interview with the Governor on the topic eight times over the course of months and was finally told an interview would not be possible. Today, his administration has still not volunteered any information on the criteria they’re using to determine who gets their voting rights back.
Sheba Williams says the impact is fewer people are applying.
“And fewer people are getting their rights restored,” adds Richard Walker. “Folks are angry. Folks are disgusted, you know, because of the fact that now it's a long drawn out process all over again.”
Not only that, but Walker and Williams told me that in the June primary they got reports of folks who had gotten their rights back being told they were no longer eligible to vote. These reports have since been confirmed by reporting from Virginia Public Media. The Department of Elections says it’s a mistake they’re trying to rectify.
But that is no comfort to Williams, who’s imagining the worst. “In November, you're going to have a lot of people who show up to vote and are told that you've been removed from the vote rolls, not have any information about why, and when they tried to clear the process of their vote will not be counted. Because the process takes so long. That is what my fear is. That this will this will determine the outcome of our November elections, because so many people will have been removed who don't know.”
This November all of Virginia’s state lawmakers are up for election.
Was it a mistake?
When I started reporting I wasn’t sure John Campbell, the Third’s story was the right one to share. Because he had already gotten his voting rights back. He wasn’t caught up in the current struggle with the Youngkin administration.
Plus we had connected in the first place because of a different issue. He had gotten a job as a peer support specialist. That means helping people who’ve had similar struggles as him: mental health issues, substance use disorder. It’s the perfect job for John.
“Things just had started kind of like falling in place for me. I was excited,” John says. “I was in a good mood, in a good phase of my life.”
But one day, he got called into the bosses’ office. “And then people called me upstairs and said ‘look, your criminal background record came back.’”
They pointed out his charge, that violent charge from 1969. Highway robbery, when he was 19 years old. They said: Sorry but you can’t do this job.
“It felt like somebody just took the life out of me. I was so hurt. I was hurt and angry and confused and angry and real angry,” John admits. “I'm still gonna be 095517 but in the street. A convict in the street, locked up and can't do certain things that I want to do. That's my gift that God gives me this gift. And I can't use it.”
The first time I met John it was July and it was humid and it felt like 100 degrees out. But there he was, dressed to the nines. Ironed black slacks, white floral shirt. One time we met and we both happened to be wearing purple. I had put on a nice dress because I was tired of feeling outclassed. He said it was fate we were matching. He was in a good mood and told me ‘Fancy clothes don’t matter, it’s what’s in here’ tapping his chest.
But in mid-September we met up for another interview and his mood had shifted. His clothes had shifted to match. He was wearing all black. Black shiny loafers with silver buckles.
We sat down in the studio and I showed him a photo of himself. The first day he voted. He’s throwing a fist up in the air. I asked him to describe what he saw.
He sighed deeply. “That I feel like somebody. That getting my rights back, that’s why I throw the power sign. Because I feel it’s power. I got a shot, something might change. At last I got my rights back before I die,” John says. “You should have your rights back. John Campbell you got your rights back. And I want everybody to know and see.”
“But for real, I see a Black man that ain’t gonna never be free. That’s what I see. I see a Black man, just like a Black man was way back in the Jim Crow law was when a freed slave couldn't vote. That's what I see,” he continued.
“That’s what I see. That’s how it is. Ain’t no need in me crying ‘Why me?’ The only thing I can do is tell the truth,” John says. “So I don't feel no more powerful because I got my rights back. All my power comes from spirituality, from God. Not from the right to vote, because it ain't ----. Piece of paper with a little gold seal on it.”
“And I still have to wake up every morning feeling this way. Putting on a nice pair of shoes, on pretty clothes. Smell good. But still ain’t ---. For real. Just a dressed up dummy. That’s what I see,” he says.
In the end, John’s story is the perfect one to share. Because it isn’t about the fact that he got his voting rights back in 2015. It’s about the fact that he didn’t get them back in 1974. And how that changed the way he viewed himself, the way he viewed democracy, for the next 40 years.
Like any human, John didn’t make a single mistake. He made many. The way I see it, we made a single mistake. Not welcoming John back the very first day he stepped out of prison.
When I told John that’s how I felt he looked at me and asked: Was it a mistake? Or was it completely on purpose?
Project reported and produced by Mallory Noe-Payne
Edited by David Seidel.
All music from Sketchbook 2 via Blue Dot Sessions.