Louise Benjamin, 48, looked forward to casting her first ballot in Virginia this November, after Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored her voting rights and those of more than 200,000 other convicted felons who had also completed their sentences.
She saw voting as a chance for redemption after serving time for assault charges. Then, last week, the state Supreme Court decided she could not vote after all.
“I was so hurt. I couldn’t even believe it,” Benjamin said, after the court ruled that McAuliffe overstepped his authority by restoring voting rights en masse instead of on a case-by-case basis. “Why they don’t want us to vote?”
Across the state, more than 13,000 ex-offenders who had registered to vote after McAuliffe signed his wholesale clemency order in April have been thrust into a kind of voting limbo.
“They have felt like they just had their rights restored and before they could even savor that for long, here comes the court just swooping in and taking it all away again,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, which has been registering ex-offenders, including Benjamin. “A lot of them are hearing the message that they don’t belong, they don’t deserve a voice.”
The court directed the state elections commissioner, Edgardo Cortés, to cancel by Aug. 25 the registrations of the 13,000 felons and to add their names to a list of prohibited voters.
McAuliffe has vowed to circumvent the court ruling by issuing individual restoration orders with an autopen. Once signed, the order will be sent to the eligible felon, along with a new voter-registration form, administration officials said.
Meanwhile, state Republicans, who challenged McAuliffe’s April order and accused him of trying to swell the ranks of Democratic voters, say they are closely monitoring his actions and may sue again.
Organizers acknowledge the confusion over this legal back-and-forth is making it harder to register felons, some of whom can be difficult to reach if they do not have permanent homes. For many ex-convicts trying to reenter society, voter-registration paperwork is not a top priority, activists say.
McAuliffe has framed his decision as a civil rights achievement, saying he is removing the last vestiges of Jim Crow-era laws that disenfranchised African American voters. Nearly a quarter of the state’s black population cannot vote because of felony convictions.
Among them is Anthony Hill, who said he was first convicted on burglary-related charges when he was 18. The 50-year-old Richmond resident said the experience of winning back and then quickly losing the right to vote again left him feeling more passionate about electoral participation.
“They want us to continue to be in slavery,” Hill said. “They want us to be in mental bondage.”
Local election officials who are supposed to strike the 13,000 felons from the voting rolls by Aug. 25 have been told by the McAuliffe administration to hold off until the state releases a plan next week.
“The fallout from all of this is hurting the very people that the governor is trying to help and leaving them in some uncertainty about their voting status,” said Richmond General Registrar J. Kirk Showalter, one of several local officials to criticize the administration for how it handled the clemency order. “It’s heartbreaking to me.”
In Northern Virginia, New Virginia Majority organizer Matt Rogers says about 200 people volunteered to help contact and re-register ex-offenders who already signed up to vote. Local chapters of the NAACP are regrouping to spread the word to churches, local businesses and fraternities in urban centers about how to re-register .
“We were always aware that the window opened by the executive order can be closed as quickly as an election,” said Linda Thomas, president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP.
She and other advocates are pushing for a constitutional amendment to permanently lift voting restrictions on ex-offenders after they complete their sentences.
Virginia is one of four states that permanently disenfranchises people with felony records, but it allows the governor to restore voting rights.
“Why am I denied from voting when I did my time?” said Viola Brooks, a 54-year-old Richmond resident who says she served about a year because of felony maiming and assault charges after a fight with a woman with a knife. “I understand I made a mistake, but I did my time and I should have been forgiven for that.”
Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle) says that state Republicans are keeping a close eye on how McAuliffe handles individual restoration orders.
“We are reserving all legal options at this point, but we need to see what he is going to do,” said Bell, who is running for attorney general.
But Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says she does not think Republicans have an argument. “I don’t know how they can challenge the individual orders when they said their issue is not what he was doing, but how he was doing it,” she said.