Viola Marie Brooks is one of more than 200,000 residents in Virginia who isn’t allowed to be a full citizen.
She registered to vote in May, just a month after Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies who had served their terms, including prison, probation, or parole. But that right was quickly stripped away again when the state’s Supreme Court ruled in July that McAuliffe overstepped his authority in issuing the blanket restoration of rights.
“I did my time. I came out and I haven't been back in no trouble or nothing since,” says Brooks, 54, about finding out her right to vote was being stripped away a second time. “It just seemed like with everything that I did, it was for nothing.”
The ruling, in essence, disenfranchised Brooks for a second time. She is among the 13,000 names revealed last week due to a required disclosure of people formerly convicted of felonies who had registered to vote. McAuliffe is now attempting to restore those people’s rights individually. Whether Brooks gets the chance to cast her ballot in November now depends on how fast the governor can restore her right to vote.
“I would love to be able to vote this November,” says Brooks, who is black and a Hillary Clinton supporter. “It would give a lot of women more knowledge and rights for things that we can do.”
Tammie Hagen-Noey was working up to 12-hour days as a manager at a local restaurant when Gov. McAuliffe signed the order in April. She didn’t find out she was eligible to register to vote again until just a few days before the state Supreme Court’s ruling. Hagen-Noey, who was convicted on a possession of a controlled substance charge in 2010, is a Clinton supporter as well, and says her ballot could have been checked for Democrats.
“I’ve paid all of my fines. I have a valid Virginia driver’s license,” Hagen-Noey, who is white, told me recently over the phone. “I work for a living. I pay child support. I do everything I am supposed to do.” She refuses to be discouraged by the state Supreme Court ruling and is waiting to have her voting rights restored by the governor, and was even working outside a DMV to register people to vote when we spoke.
“You can say that my vote doesn’t matter, but what you mean is that I don’t matter,” she says. “It almost brings me to tears just to say that.”
Thirty-four states have some form of voter disenfranchisement law on the books for people convicted of crimes, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Virginia is one of four states that permanently disenfranchises people convicted of felonies unless they get approval from the governor to have their voting rights restored. More than 372,000 people in the state can’t vote, according to the Advancement Project, a nonprofit focusing on racial justice issues.
Sen. Tim Kaine, now Clinton’s running mate, restored the voting rights of more than 4,000 people convicted of felonies during his time in the governor’s mansion but failed to issue a blanket order restoring the rights of all ex-felons in his state. In a statement to Fusion, the Clinton campaign says both Secretary Clinton and Sen. Kaine support Gov. McAuliffe’s efforts to restore voting rights to Virginians with felonies in their past, and that Sen. Kaine didn’t do it himself when he was governor because it was a “last-minute request” and his legal team was unable to determine if a blanket restoration could be defended.
One in 13 black Americans has lost the right to vote as a result of voter disenfranchisement laws, according to the Sentencing Project. In total, 5.85 million people can’t vote because of a felony conviction. And black Americans now make up 1 million of the 2.3 million people in prison.
“There has always been this fear of the power of the black and brown vote in our country,” Edward Hailes Jr., general counsel at the Advancement Project, says. “So, if the law is that you can’t discriminate based on color, those states tried to find other ways of getting around that and making it hard for black and brown voters to participate in our democracy.”
Leah Aden, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says that after 2008, people of color participated in the electoral process in record numbers; black and brown voters in most age groups vote Democrat. This may influence why some legislators don’t have the appetite for supporting restoration laws, Aden says.
“There are certain people in the country who know the country is changing demographically and they are doing everything in their power [to take away people’s right to vote], from photo ID laws to redistricting schemes to upholding these felony disenfranchisement laws to limit political opportunity,” Aden says. “These felony disenfranchisement laws are part of that history of excluding rather than including people of color from the political process.”
“The reason why I can’t vote can be summed up in two words: white supremacy,” says Muhammad Assaddique Abdul Rockman, a Richmond resident who was also disenfranchised by the court’s ruling.
Rockman, who is black, was just 16 years old in 1980 when his conviction lost him his voting rights before he was even old enough to vote for the first time. Like Hagen-Noey and Brooks, he was looking forward to voting this November. To have that right taken away again “evoked sadness in me,” he says. “I was amazed at just how powerful some people are in comparison to the rest of us. I felt vulnerable. I felt a sense of powerlessness that I don’t think I’ve ever felt.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.