Virginia Votes: Former Felons On the Power of the Ballot
Today’s Virginia Votes takes us to Richmond -- where half the city’s population is African-American. One in five black Virginians have felonies on their record, which means they can’t vote.
That is, until recently. After a long legal battle, felons in Virginia are slowly gaining the right to vote again.
Christopher Rashad Green is everywhere in Richmond. I first met him at a community meeting I was covering, but he’s also at city council hearings, and active in a bunch of advocacy groups.
One day, he popped up somewhere I didn't expect him, at an event hosted by New Virginia Majority. That’s a nonprofit group that's been working to help former felons get their rights restored and register to vote.
I had no idea Rashad Green had a criminal record.
“Yeah a lot of people are surprised about that, they see me striving,” Rashad Green said. “And they have no idea of the experiences I’ve been through. I’ve been involved with the criminal justice system since I was a teen, on and off for many years. It was 7 years ago where I finally turned a corner and discovered the path I was on, carved out for me.”
It was at that same event we both met Charles Satchell. Satchell is 65 and from upstate New York.
He moved to Virginia when he was 24. It was 1975, and his political inclinations, turned violent.
“We started a little team of guys and we started sticking up places, robbing,” Satchell said. “We didn’t want to be like the Ku Klux Klan that was going around hanging, lynching, beating people. We felt like Robin Hood, we’re going to retaliate, we’re going to leave with your money.”
I don't think there's no such thing as a wasted vote, because that is what you fight for, that is your right to vote. If you have a vote and don't use it, that's a wasted vote.
These are two men who haven’t been able to vote since their 20’s. I wanted to pick their brains about how losing their right to vote, then potentially gaining it again, has affected not just their attitude towards politics and this election, but the attitude of their friends and families.
So one day, not long after, we all got together on Rashad Green’s porch.
Both these men have an enthusiasm for politics, but they openly acknowledge that’s not the case for many they know. Rashad Green says his siblings, who have felonies, have no interest in politics.
“It’s not their fault, because being disenfranchised, most of us have looked at it like ‘Well, doesn’t matter if I vote or don’t vote, because things aren’t gonna change because the status quo is remaining the same,” said Rashad Green.
“It’s deplorable that our people find themselves in that condition mentally,” Satchell said. “Apathy, you know, being apathetic when it comes to voting, because when you understand the history of it, and you see that people that made all these sacrifices --- white and black -- it must be important.”
Throughout our interview Rashad Green and Satchell seemed to be on the same page about everything.
They’d sit quietly, head bowed, as the other talked -- nodding along emphatically to descriptions of life in prison, what it feels like to walk out free, and the tangled mess of hope and cynicism they felt during the political battle to get their rights back.
They agree on so many things, but when it comes to who to vote for, for president of the United States, they disagree.
“I really don’t know right now who I’m going to vote for, I have no idea,” said Rashad Green. “There’s more than two candidates in the race, a lot of people don’t know that. People will give you the argument that if you vote for the Green Party or the Libertarian you’re going to take away from Hillary. Well so what? That’s my choice.”
Satchell seemed surprised.
“Some votes to me, would be wasted votes -- meaning that you throw it somewhere where you know it’s not going to result in anything but a throw it somewhere,” Satchell said. “When you know you’re going to go into the booth and vote for a person that’s not going to win, then to me, that’s a wasted vote.”
But here’s the thing, Satchell can’t actually vote yet.
The process to get his rights restored takes time, and while the voter registration deadline has come and gone, Satchell’s application is sitting in the Governor’s office, pending.