RICHMOND, Va. ― One rainy night in 2009, Muhammad As-saddique Abdul-Rahman woke up in a graveyard.
He’d been released from prison seven years earlier, after nearly two decades behind bars for armed robbery, and had spent most of his freedom homeless, drinking and using drugs.
Waking up in that graveyard was the wakeup call he needed. He checked himself into a detox facility, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, got clean, and started working as a carpenter.
These days, Abdul-Rahman, 53, is a voter registration organizer. Pamphlets detailing ballot measures stick out of his left breast pocket, and he carries two clipboards in his hand. He wears a tie every day. Today, it falls over an orange and blue plaid short-sleeve shirt. A blue cap with white stars is on his head.
Since April, he has worked 12-hour to 16-hour days canvassing neighborhoods in Richmond, helping former felons navigate the confusing process of applying to restore their voting rights and then registering to vote.
“As an ex-felon, myself, I couldn’t vote and I didn’t feel ― as a citizen I didn’t feel whole,” Abdul-Rahman told The Huffington Post. “I was paying taxes. I had to follow laws, and I had no say in what these laws were.”
In a few weeks, Abdul-Rahman’s life will change again. On Nov. 8, he’ll be at his local polling station at 6 a.m. sharp. He’ll vote for the first time in his life.
Abdul-Rahman and thousands of other ex-felons are at the center of a contentious battle in Virginia this election year. Virginia is one of only four states that ban former felons from voting. In April, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 state residents who had been disenfranchised because they were former felons.
The Virginia Supreme Court ruled three months later that while McAuliffe has the constitutional authority to restore the right to vote, he could not do so with a blanket executive order that applied to every ex-felon. The court also ordered that 13,000 former felons who had registered to vote after McAuliffe’s executive order be removed from voting rolls.
Exactly one month after that, on the steps of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the state capitol in Richmond, McAuliffe pledged to restore the voting rights of every former felon individually. He’s signed more than 67,000 orders since.
Abdul-Rahman was there that day. “It was magical,” he said. “It was magical, you know what I mean? I was so into it that I said, ‘Give ‘em hell Gov.’”
When he first learned of McAullife’s executive order by word of mouth in April, Abdul-Rahman immediately registered to vote. With a new fire in him, he started canvassing on his own, imploring other ex-felons to register. Then he discovered he could get paid to do what he loved. In May, New Virginia Majority ― a progressive nonprofit that organizes communities of color, women, youth, LGBTQ people ― hired Abdul-Rahman to help mobilize ex-felons.
He continues to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings ― where he first heard about McAuliffe’s order ― and considers his service as an organizer part of his recovery. But after convincing hundreds of ex-felons to register following McAuliffe’s initial order in April, Abdul-Rahman had to start all over again.
“To cut 13,000 off the voters rolls in one stroke ― that’s un-American, that’s un-democratic and that is wrong ― morally, intellectually and it was legally wrong,” he said.
Abdul-Rahman redoubled his efforts to find people he’d already registered, said Tram Nguyen, co-director of the New Virginia Majority.
“There were a couple of challenges: One, overcoming the sort of the emotional toll of folks who didn’t have their rights, and then they were given and taken away,” Nguyen said. “And two, convincing folks that they should continue to try to be engaged and their voice does matter.”
Abdul-Rahman is one of the top organizers for New Virginia Majority. His passion is fueled by an understanding of what it’s like to be stuck for years in a system that provides little to no help for those trying to start over. He sees Virginia’s restoration of voting rights as a way for former felons to pick themselves back up and have their voices heard.
“What they have done with mass incarceration, and by putting a felony on us every chance they got, is that they have froze us out of most of the world,” Abdul-Rahman said, referring to black men like himself. “They’ve created an underclass ― a caste, if you will.”
On Monday morning, the day of the state’s 5 p.m. deadline for voter registration, Abdul-Rahman wasted no time. Standing in a convenience store parking lot in sweltering heat, he quickly gathered a gaggle of men around him. As cars rotated in and out of the lot blasting music, Abdul-Rahman informed the men ― most of whom were former felons ― that they may be eligible to vote for the first time. He helped them fill out voter registration forms and used his iPhone to check if their rights had been restored.
One of the men Abdul-Rahman helped was Martin Parker, a 51-year-old who said he was released from prison in 2010 after being “in and out” from the age of 18 on charges of robbery and breaking and entering. Parker said he’d never voted and had been working with Abdul-Rahman for three weeks to get his rights restored. He was still waiting on Monday, unsure if he would be able to register before the deadline.
Not counting those he helped on Monday, Abdul-Rahman has registered roughly 1,400 people to vote since May, including about 800 ex-felons. It’s easy to see why he’s good at his job. At a bus transfer stop downtown, he sprinted around, asking everyone he saw whether they were registered to vote. At one point, he chased a woman who had an incomplete application onto a bus.
For those already registered, he’d leave them with a friendly reminder: “Polls open at 6 a.m. See you on Nov. 8.” He’d check to make sure they had photo ID, which Virginia requires for voting. If not, he’d direct them to the room in City Hall where they could get one for free.
Later in the day, Abdul-Rahman joined other ex-felons working for New Virginia Majority at a round-table discussion meant to humanize the issue of felon voting rights. When asked for a word that captures how they felt when their rights were taken away by the court, the men and women offered this: depravation, deflated, stripped, abandoned, hurt, cynical, determined.
Charles Satchell, 65, was the only ex-felon at the table still without the right to vote.
With just over an hour before the registration deadline, Satchell asked Tammie Hagen, 52, a New Virginia Majority organizer and a former felon, if she would check one more time to see if his rights had been restored. Hagen, using her phone, found that Satchell was still in limbo, his status “pending.”
“I’m almost trying to push it aside because I’m getting sad about it, kind of emotional,” Satchell said. “It’s akin to having like a scarlet letter. It’s akin to walking around with like an X on your forehead that people see.”
Satchell said not being able to vote in next month’s presidential election only motivates him to make sure those who can vote do so.
“I was so engaged in 2008, in 2012, and what this is gonna do is make me even more engaged,” he said. “I want to make sure I get more people out. I’m gonna pick up more people than I would have.”
It’s easy for former felons, who’ve been disenfranchised in Virginia since the 19th century, to give into “hopelessness and despair,” Abdul-Rahman said. But once he got a few to realize that they could become full citizens again, they began to “perk up,” he explained. One young woman called her mother the second she had her certificate in hand ― the governor’s order restoring her voting rights.
“Some of them have framed their certificate and hung it on their walls,” Abdul-Rahman said, beaming with pride that he had helped them. “You can go in many barbershops and see where guys have hung theirs on the wall. Some have used it to impress their girlfriends.”
One man Abdul-Rahman helped said he had been convicted of a felony for stealing a chicken — in the 1950s. He had tears in his eyes when Abdul Rahman registered him to vote.
But much of Abdul Rahman’s work could be for naught if Virginia’s Republican-led General Assembly gets its way. Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R) has proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would restore the rights of certain ex-felons, but make it more difficult for others ― namely ones who were convicted of crimes the state deems “violent.”
Norment’s bill would need to pass both houses of the General Assembly in two sessions, then be approved by voters. If it passes, it wouldn’t make it onto the ballot until 2018. That gives Abdul-Rahman and other former felons who recently got their rights back a way to ensure they keep them: Vote Norment and his allies out of office.
Abdul-Rahman is paying close attention to Republicans in the General Assembly, and is devoting his time until Election Day to mobilizing the 1,400 people he registered ― especially the ex-felons. He wants to show Virginia’s elected officials that the electorate is changing, and that there is a new voting bloc that can make a difference.
“What I’m going to do now is try to organize these guys so we can punish them at the polls,” Abdul-Rahman said of lawmakers who oppose ex-felon voting rights. “We can vote as a bloc and we can punish them and change this city and state.”
Some of the ex-felons Abdul-Rahman meets aren’t particularly eager to join his effort.
“‘It don’t count’ is one of the things they say,” Abdul-Rahman said. “And I will tell them that if it did not count, then … why don’t they want you to vote? Why don’t they just generously give it back? Why did they make it so hard?”
UPDATE: Virginia extended the deadline for voter registration to Friday.
Video produced by Amber Ferguson.