RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — We’re less than two weeks away from the November election, and one of the big issues still making waves in Virginia is where the candidates for governor stand on restoring felons’ rights.
Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Ralph Northam supports a more streamlined process to restoring voting rights. His opponent, Republican Candidate Ed Gillespie says he wants a more cautious approach.
So, what is it like for those who have had their rights restored?
‘Reviving a community I once helped destroy’
Jerry Lee just had his rights restored a few months ago.
“It’s going to be my first election ever,” he said.
He says he was a heroin addict when he was locked up in 1992 at age 22. After spending the last 23 years behind bars for robbery, he was just released last year.
“It was amazing because I overcame something and I finally got a chance to breathe free, fresh air as a free man,” Lee said.
And once released, he knew he wanted to vote.
“I did everything that was required of me to get off of parole and get off probation and I immediately filed to have my rights restored so that I can get into the voting process,” he said.
About two months ago, his voting rights were restored.
“It was breathtaking,” he said. “Because for so many years being incarcerated I wanted to come back and become a whole citizen again and it was almost like ‘you finally made it.'”
“It was breathtaking. For so many years being incarcerated I wanted to come back and become a whole citizen again, and it was almost like, ‘you finally made it.'”
And Lee has this to say to people who don’t think convicted felons should ever vote again:
“That’s shallow thinking because if you’ve done a crime and you’ve done the time for your crime, you’ve done what you’re supposed to have done,” he said. “After you’re released you should be able to be back in the process. How long do we have to keep being punished for the same things?”
Lee is now active in helping the community he says he once helped to destroy.
“I’m more conscious of politics because I’m a part of the system, I’ve made it out of the system and I do a lot of things in the community and I see the despair in our community,” he said.
He hosts “Barbershop Talks” where he and other community activists go into local barbershops and talk about the opioid cisis, among other topics, and ways to heal the community. He co-manages his sister-in-law’s singing career, and he also drives for Uber.
“I’m all over the place when it comes to staying on the right track and doing the things that I’m supposed to be doing to be productive,” Lee said.
And he looks forward to voting for the first time ever on November 7th.
“I’m going to be amazed at the process,” he said. “I’m really listening to what candidates are saying, I’m listening to the underlying issues that they’re not saying and I just hope that whoever gets elected gets it right because we’re struggling out here.”
Revive my Vote
The group Revive my Vote has helped hundreds of Virginians with felony convictions regain their right to vote.
“Our organization exists to help people through what can sometimes be an intimidating process,” said Jakob Stalnaker, a Revive My Vote deputy director. “The sole criteria for getting your rights restored under the current administration is that you’ve served your time including probation and parole and that’s pretty much it,” he said.
“I think more than anything there’s an overwhelming amount of confusion about the process,” added Deputy Director Noelle Harvey. “What we like to do is to help alleviate any of that confusion any way that we can.”
Revive My Vote is a nonpartisan group that will answer questions and guide people through the application process.
“I wanted to get involved because I like the idea that we help everyone. We’re a nonpartisan organization so weather you vote red or you vote blue, we help you get through the process of restoring your voting rights,” Harvey said.
And the group has helped people from all different parts of Virginia and political parties.
“I’ve spoken to people from Southwest Virginia, from Hanover County, from Hampton Rhodes and Northern Virginia,” Stalnaker said. “People want to be involved in the process no matter what their political party is.”
And it’s not just the right to vote, but the group also helps restore people’s right to serve on a jury, to be a notary public, and to hold public office.
Virginia has one of the toughest laws when it comes to restoring rights to convicted felons. The Commonwealth’s democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, said he views his efforts to restore voting rights to Virginians as one of his most important legacies. He issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of more than 200,000 felons at once. But Virginia’s Supreme Court struck down that order months later, ruling that governors cannot restore rights en masse but must handle them on a case-by-case basis. Since then, McAuliffe has done just that, assembling a team to individually restore voting rights to more than 160,000 Virginians.
And this has now become a contentious issue in Virginia’s race for the next governor. Democratic Candidate Ralph Northam has said he wants to continue McAuliffe’s voting rights efforts. Just this week Republican Candidate Ed Gillespie released a new campaign ad slamming Northam’s policy on this issue and calling automatically restoring voting rights to felons “reckless” and “irresponsible.”
Governor McAuliffe fired back, saying that Gillespie’s ad was divisive and just meant to scare people. “Ed has run an absolutely despicable, disgusting campaign. He’s in the gutter with Donald Trump.”
Even though it’s too late to register to vote for this upcoming election, the volunteers with Revive My Vote say you can still call to see if your rights have already been restore and they still encourage people to go through the process now because it could change depending on who is elected to office. But members of the group say say no matter who the governor is and what the process is, they will be there to help.
Their hotline is 844-932-8683 and their website is here.