For K. Cooper, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s quest to restore voting rights to tens of thousands of Virginia residents is personal. For ten years, Cooper was among the state’s disenfranchised voters. But she got her voting rights restored—and now dedicates her time to helping others do the same.
One simple mistake led Cooper into the political wilderness of disenfranchisement. She was 18 when she was arrested and convicted on federal drug charges. Cooper was sentenced to six months in jail and five months of house arrest. With that, she lost her voting rights. She struggled to find work after her release and had to settle for low-paying food service jobs because of her felony conviction. Her tenacity helped her through those tough years, but not being able to cast a ballot remained a heavy burden. She had trouble accepting that one mistake could strip her of a basic democratic right.
“At the end of the day, it made me feel even more degraded because I paid my debt to society and I can’t even participate in the leadership of my country,” Cooper, now 29, told me. “I’m still being held accountable for what I did,” she said, reflecting on how she felt without a right to vote. “It was really frustrating for me because I wanted to participate. But my past mistake didn't allow me to participate in our government system.”
In 2015, Cooper, who asked to use only her first initial out of privacy concerns, applied to have her voting rights restored. After six weeks, her application was approved. Now, she manages a team of 12 as deputy field director with New Virginia Majority, a progressive civil rights organization, to ensure that people convicted of felonies in her home community of Richmond know that they, too, can vote.
Nationally, 5.8 million people cannot vote because of felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project; 1 in 13 black Americans have lost that right compared to one and 56 non-black voters. The ways in which people convicted of felonies are disenfranchised by these laws vary state to state, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In Virginia, for example, residents can apply to have their rights restored after completing their sentences, parole and probation. In Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky, rights are permanently stripped and only the governor can restore them.
In the national fight to restore voting rights to people with felonies, Virginia holds a special place.
In July, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that McAuliffe overstepped his authority and overruled his decision, leaving residents who were looking forward to voting mired back in disenfranchisement. McAuliffe is currently working around the ruling by restoring residents voting rights individually. So far, he says he has restored the rights to 42,000 people.
Part of Cooper’s work is informing residents convicted of felonies that they can apply for their right to vote again and that many of them are eligible to register. Her own personal story is what drives her.
“I’m a mother, I’m a wife,” she said. “I’m not even thinking of my past charge that happened in 2005 because that doesn’t define me and that is not who I am anymore. And a lot of people need to know and be aware of their rights. They need to be aware of the privileges of being an American citizen.”
Discussions of felony voter disenfranchisement have been virtually non-existent during the presidential election cycle. Neither Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton nor her GOP counterpart Donald Trump has discussed it in any depth.
Cooper says it’s unfortunate that voter disenfranchisement is being overlooked because it's an inhumane form of punishment that is holding people hostage to who they were, as opposed to who they are now. Moreover, she added, it’s simply not democratic.
“I’m a taxpayer,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I have a say-so over the officials of my government? I’m a working woman of society. I’m a mother. I’m a wife.”
The voter registration deadline in Virginia is October 17 and Cooper is scrambling to get as many people registered to vote as possible. So far, she estimates she’s been able to register 50 men and women who have had their rights restored.
Meanwhile, Virginia state Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, Jr., recently proposed an amendment to the state’s constitution that would bar people convicted of a felonies from ever voting again—excepting only those convicted of non-violent felonies who had paid restitution, along with court costs. "This amendment would guarantee those who have their right to vote restored are truly deserving of that second chance," he said in a statement.
Cooper said people like Norment need to take a minute and think about the errors in their own lives to consider how unfair their thinking is.
“Think about that one mistake that you made, that you never got caught for and how it could have affected your life if you would have gotten caught,” she said. “Think about who you could have been versus who you are now and those mistakes and failures you had in life. If it wasn’t for grace, how could you have moved forward? So think about someone else and the importance of voting and their rights as a human being the same you would yours.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.