RICHMOND, VA. -- “I’m just overwhelmed,” John Barbee said, after he finished filling out a voter registration form in the basement of a Baptist church in Richmond Thursday.
The 62-year-old, who was released from prison in 1972, had been trying to register for the past eight years but had been stymied repeatedly by Virginia’s strict felony disenfranchisement law. Barbee was able to register Thursday because Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order on April 22 restoring voting rights to over 200,000 people with past felony convictions who have completed their supervised probation or parole. Previously, ex-offenders had to individually petition the governor to be re-enfranchised.
“I had just gave up on the system, period, for trying to help me get registered,” he told The Huffington Post. After he finished filling out the registration form, he turned to his wife. “I feel like a citizen now,” he told her.
Karen Fountain, an organizer with New Virginia Majority, a civic engagement organization, has been registering ex-offenders at a brisk pace since before McAuliffe’s order. She is one of 60 organizers doing voter registration work for the group across the state. On Thursday, she spotted a line of people waiting in the rain for a free lunch outside the Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church.
Fountain followed the crowd into the church’s basement. There, she took over a table and placed a registration form and pen at each seat. She guided a woman through filling out her registration form and then invited the rest of the people in the room to come over and register after they finished eating. The woman who just completed her form did a happy dance in her seat as Fountain told the group that those ex-offenders who were no longer on parole and probation could vote.
“It’s wonderful to see them know that they do belong, that they have all their civil rights given back to them,” Fountain said.
New Virginia Majority has registered over 550 ex-offenders since the governor signed his order, or a quarter of the roughly 2,100 ex-offenders who have registered statewide.
Virginia had one of the most punitive felony disenfranchisement laws in the nation before McAuliffe signed his order. Iowa, Florida and Kentucky are now the only states to permanently disenfranchise people with past felony convictions.
Fountain often encounters ex-offenders who are incredulous about McAuliffe’s order, so she keeps a copy of The Washington Post from the day after McAuliffe signed it as proof that it actually happened. While headlines in articles about McAuliffe’s order refer to the people affected by it as “felons,” Fountain emphasizes to those she helps register that there should be an “ex” before the noun used to describe them.
Republicans in the state legislature immediately objected to McAuliffe’s move to re-enfranchise ex-offenders and threatened to file a lawsuit against the governor, arguing that his sweeping order violates the state Constitution by restoring citizenship rights all at once to ex-offenders who are no longer on parole and probation. The Virginia GOP leadership suggested that McAuliffe’s restoration of rights was meant to benefit Democrats, since 1 in 5 African-Americans in Virginia are unable to vote and racial minorities, who make up a significant chunk of those who will benefit from McAuliffe’s order, don’t tend to gravitate to Republicans.
But disenfranchising ex-offenders was an inherently political move in the first place, more than a century ago. White political leaders -- the Democrats of the time -- viewed black men who were able to vote during Reconstruction as a threat, so came up with ways to disenfranchise as many as possible. Carter Glass, a Virginia state senator, said after the state’s constitution enshrined felon disenfranchisement into law in 1902 that poll taxes, literacy tests and felon disenfranchisement would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State … so that in no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
While some voting rights advocates fear that Republicans could get a preliminary injunction to halt the registration of ex-offenders in Virginia, Fountain isn’t worried.
“If we have any time pressure, that’s because we’re trying to get as many people as possible registered to vote, not so much because they are going to sue,” she said.
“We are moving as fast as we can at this point,” Jon Liss, New Virginia Majority’s co-executive director, told HuffPost.
Fountain has recently registered people like Harry Coleman, who spent 10 years in prison for armed robbery in 1986. He was a singer in a soul group called Edge of Daybreak that recorded an album while he and the other members were incarcerated.
Disenfranchising ex-offenders has the effect of robbing them of a sense of dignity when they return to their homes after they are released. The American Probation and Parole Association says that restoring voting rights to ex-offenders helps them reintegrate into society and therefore improve public safety by reducing recidivism rates.
“You feel less than a citizen, less of a person, when you can’t vote," said Coleman, whose state supervision ended in 2003. "You have no say with what’s going on in your life."
He was feeling particularly joyful when HuffPost visited his home in Richmond.
“I can vote for Hillary [Clinton] or vote for Donald [Trump], I can do either one that I choose, although I think it’s time for a female to get in there, I ain’t too hot on Donald with all that stuff he’s talking about,” he said. “I’ve got freedom to do whatever I want to do.”