I have never voted. By the time I was 18, I had a felony shoplifting conviction, which meant that I forever lost my right to vote in Virginia. I never had a chance.
I didn’t think of anyone but me. Besides, I thought voting was just for rich people. They made the decisions. I didn’t think I counted.
When I was in my early 20s, Bill Clinton was running for president, and I wanted to vote for him. I tried to register. That was when I learned that I couldn’t vote because of my record.
But I had other problems. I was often homeless. My grandparents were raising my two older children; the younger two had been adopted by other families. I saw them as much as possible, but most of the time I was using. Eventually I stopped visiting, except for a few periods when I managed to be sober and hold a job.
After many years of trouble, including a number of felony convictions (more shoplifting, prostitution), I served seven months in 2005 for stealing a cash register at a Kinko’s in Alexandria. When I was released at age 38, I knew I wanted my life back. I don’t know how else to explain it — I guess God intervened. I decided I didn’t have to live a life of drug activity and crime. I wanted to accomplish my goals, and one of my goals was to get my rights back.
My life is so different now than it was before. I’m sober, and I have much closer relationships with my children and grandchildren. I worked for a time at the dining hall at George Mason University. A lot of the students got to know me, and they were very accepting. They didn’t care about my past. My co-workers knew I was in recovery and had been to prison, but I never felt judged in the workplace. That had an effect on me. My asthma forced me to leave that job and go on disability, but I started doing public speaking. I’ve been working on my GED. I’ve been certified to test people for HIV. I recruit people for treatment through SAARA, an alliance dedicated to treating addiction. This is a big deal, especially when you grow up thinking that you’re nothing. When I look at what I’ve done and am able to say, “I did that” — that’s exciting.
But I still couldn’t vote. With the encouragement of my family and Friends of Guest House, an organization that helps women in Northern Virginia transition from incarceration to life in the community, I applied in 2010 through the governor’s office to have my voting rights restored. It was a long process (I had to wait five years just to qualify to apply) with a lot of paperwork, but the hardest part was waiting to hear back. A month later, my application was rejected. I cried. I felt like I still wasn’t good enough, that my past was still being held against me. I applied again three months later. I was rejected again.
It has not been easy to live in my community and be shut out of voting, especially during President Obama’s first campaign. That was the time I most wanted to vote. I wanted to be a part of the election of the first black president. But I couldn’t. All my daughters went to vote. They all got their stickers. Everyone was talking on Election Day about the polls, how crowded they were. And I was jealous.
When you’re walking around without an “I Voted” sticker, people ask why you didn’t vote. And you don’t want to say, “Because I’m a convicted felon.” It’s embarrassing.
But I’m not ashamed anymore. I’ve grown up since then. I’m proud that my daughters can vote — they can do something that makes a difference.
Last month, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order to restore the vote to more than 200,000 ex-convicts. All felons who have finished their sentences and are no longer on supervised probation or parole qualify. When I learned that I could get my voting rights back, I felt relief. Finally, I thought, someone sees past what we did. (And just in time — I want to use my right to vote against Donald Trump.) And I’m glad to hear that other people are getting their rights back, too. There are a lot of us, and even though we made mistakes, we’re worthy. As for the Virginia GOP lawmakers who plan to sue to have the order reversed, they’re just ignorant. Many ex-offenders have put the past behind them, and you still think we shouldn’t vote? People who turned their lives around 20 years ago — you still want to hold it against them? It’s not right.
In my old life, I was just here. I didn’t feel as if I was part of the country, a citizen. Whoever people voted in, I didn’t get to have a say. Today I know that I am an important part of society, and every vote counts. But even if I hadn’t changed my life, I should still be able to vote because I am a citizen and part of this country. Everyone should keep that right. No matter what.
As told to Jenny Rogers