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In Civil Rights Victory, Virginia Restores Voting Rights for Hundreds of Thousands Nonviolent Felons

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In a major victory for voting rights, Virginia’s Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has announced he will automatically restore voting rights for people with nonviolent felony convictions. His decision will eliminate the two-year waiting period and petition process that currently disenfranchises thousands of nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences and satisfied all the conditions of their punishments. According to the Sentencing Project, 350,000 Virginians who have completed their sentences remained disenfranchised in 2010. We speak to Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of NAACP, which has been on the forefront of the campaign to restore voting rights to former felons. The news comes as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue a major ruling that could decide the future of the Voting Rights Act.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In a major victory for voting rights, Virginia’s Republican Governor Bob McDonnell has announced he will automatically restore voting rights for people with nonviolent felony convictions. His decision will eliminate the two-year waiting period and petition process that currently disenfranchises thousands of nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences and satisfied all the conditions of their punishment.

According to the Sentencing Project, 350,000 Virginians who have completed their sentences remained disenfranchised in 2010. Under the new plan, the governor’s office will notify nonviolent felons in a letter that their rights have been restored, once the office has verified that he or she has served all time and paid all debts owed.

On Thursday, McDonnell explained his decision on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

GOV. BOB McDONNELL: We are a nation of second chances. We believe in redemption and restoration. And our recidivism rate in Virginia is down to 23 percent. But part of what we’ve been able to do is have a aggressive prisoner re-entry system, but also to get people fully reintegrated into society. And so, what I announced yesterday, Joe and Mika, was, once somebody has done their probation or parole or incarceration and they paid all their fines and costs and don’t have any pending charges, we’re going to automatically restore their voting rights and their civil and constitutional rights, get them fully reintegrated in society to be a law-abiding citizen, because that will decrease the chances they commit new crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: Currently, Virginia is one of only four states that do not automatically restore voting rights to felons once they’ve served their time. Even under the new process, Virginia Governor McDonnell says he can only legally restore rights on an individual basis. This means the governor’s office will send a letter to each former nonviolent felon it can find, telling them their rights are restored. Attempts to amend the Constitution to make the process automatic have proved unsuccessful for more than 30 years.

Ex-offenders reacted to Governor McDonnell’s announcement on CBS affiliate WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia.

DARRELL GOODEN: I can be a part of society.

JOHN KUNZ: I’ve forgiven myself. The other people involved in my situation have forgiven me. But it’s just—it was like a dark cloud over my head, because now this—this finally feels like society forgiving me, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined now by Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP. His organization has been on the forefront of the campaign to restore voting rights to former felons.

Ben Jealous, welcome back to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So you have a conservative Republican governor—


AMY GOODMAN: —McDonnell, who—explain exactly what he has to do.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: He has—well, what he did was simply sign an order saying that for each person who has fulfilled these requirements, which has to be a nonviolent crime, and you have to have served all your time, paid your fines, served probation—all that’s done—your rights will be restored that day. And so, they have over 100,000 people in the database, but it only goes back to 1995. And so, for people whose crimes were before then, those folks are going to have to come in and ask, you know. But for the 100,000-plus that go back to 1995, they will get a note saying, “Your voting rights have been restored.”

AMY GOODMAN: But he has to do it individually, one by one.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Well, it’s sort of a legal term. The bottom line is that, however you do it, people have to get an actual note to them, so they have something on file if they’re challenged. So, you know, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, since it is, in essence, an executive order, is it potentially—is it possible that a future governor could reverse it?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: It is possible, but it’s very unlikely. Cuccinelli has come out and said some things that sounded like he was against it, be if you actually listen carefully, he said nothing that would actually oppose what the governor did. And we’ve been assured that he’s very unlikely to overturn it. Similarly, Terry McAuliffe, we don’t think, will overturn it.

It’s really a shame it’s taken this long. This has been in place for more than 110 years. And it was put in place by a constitutional convention in 1901, as one delegate said, where the whole purpose was discrimination. He said, “Because of this plan, the darkie will be eliminated as a factor in our state’s politics in less than five years.” You don’t get much more clear than that. And so, it’s just amazing that it’s taken until now to put such a big dent. Now, the governor is still pushing, he’s committed to push, for the actual repeal of that language in the Constitution, even after he’s out of office. And we’ll keep working on that, too.

AMY GOODMAN: The reason I was asking about the individual nature of this is, isn’t it that Governor McDonnell is doing this because he wants this to happen and the Legislature will not approve it?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: That’s right. This year we got through the Senate, but we got killed in committee in the House. We actually believe that we had the votes in the House, if we could get to the floor, and we weren’t able to. And so, you know, in Virginia, you can only serve one term. He’s been in about three-and-a-half years. He’s coming up on the end. And so, this is what he could do.

This language about it being about particular people, as opposed to sort a class of people, really has to do with the requirements of the law there. But the way that it will be experienced is just the same, which is that all the people in this class will have their voting rights automatically restored. You’re talking about the possible universe of about maybe 350,000 formerly incarcerated people in Virginia; 100,000 to 200,000 of them will have their rights restored this way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what does this say about the trend on this whole issue of formerly incarcerated gaining their voting rights? What’s been happening state by state around the country now?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Well, you know, state by state, we’ve seen really kind of a massive convergence, if you will, of the left and the right. The Christian conservatives and the—you know, and the most activist groups on the left coming together and saying, “We’ve got to figure out a way for these millions of people who have been to prison to finally be reintegrated into society.” So you heard the governor talk about redemption, for instance. Well, that’s the value that he and I found three years ago when we first talked about this, that we both treasure. That was the principle that we could come together on, that people have a right to redemption. And if somebody is going to redeem themselves, then we as society have to do everything that we can. And quite frankly, if somebody is coming out of prison and voting is top in mind, we want to encourage that behavior, you know? And so, he said, “Look, we will do this. You know, we will try for the full victory, and if we fall short, this is what I’ll do.” And that’s what he did.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the landscape in the United States of what happens to people who have spent time in prison and come out, everywhere from, what, Vermont, where you can vote from prison.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Sure. Well, I mean, in Maine, we run a prison system-wide voter registration drive. You’ll also notice that Maine has a black population that’s 0.7 percent of its population. This is really—this barring felons from voting is a legacy of Jim Crow. It is an artifact of racialized oppression in our country. And that’s why, in Virginia, when they put it into law, they said, “The darkie will be eliminated as a factor in our state’s politics.” Very clear. Here in New York state, right after the 15th Amendment was granted, they went into Albany. And there’s a great report from the Brennan Center called “Jim Crow in New York,” based on the work of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And they said, “We are anticipating the imposition of the 15th Amendment, against our objection, and we are seeking to similarly suppress the black vote by taking away voting rights from formerly incarcerated people,” because in this country we’ve always had racial profiling. In this country, we’ve always enforced the laws in unfair ways.

And what this means is that—you know, look, if you’re a drug addict and you’re poor, you tend to go to prison. You’re rich, you tend to go to Betty Ford, right? Or the equivalent. And when you go in, if you’re a woman—and that’s been sort of the huge increasing demographic over the last 20 years—your kids go to foster care. Well, you don’t get your kids out of foster care when you get home from prison. You get them home—you get them out of foster care when you get home from prison and find a job and can keep it. And for formerly incarcerated people, they find that they have this kind of scarlet “F” on their forehead, where it’s almost impossible in many places to get a job, where you can’t vote in places like Virginia, where—one woman spoke passionately yesterday about what it was like to be speaking to the Republican Women’s Club and asked to sign a petition for somebody who wanted to run for office, and be interrogated about why you couldn’t sign it, and finally have to sort of re-out herself as somebody who, on her worst day, had done something wrong and become a felon. And so, this is how we put people in—you know, kind of push people out of our society while having them live right amongst us.

And this principle of redemption that many on the right and many on the left have been able to unify around is really about saying, at the end of the day, these are our neighbors, these are our church members, and they have a right—in fact, we have a need for them to get right back into society, to become part of society. If you’re not encouraging people to do the right thing, if you’re not allowing them to do the right thing, then you’re encouraging them to do the wrong thing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want ask you about Kemba Smith’s fight for felon voting rights in Virginia. In 1994, she was sentenced to 24-and-a-half years in prison after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a ring. And she admitted to lying and breaking the law for her abusive boyfriend, but never used or sold drugs herself. After President Clinton granted her clemency, Kemba Smith became a leading advocate for voter restoration in Virginia.

KEMBA SMITH: After serving six-and-a-half years in federal prison, President Bill Clinton commuted by 24.5-year prison sentence. Had it not been for this act of the United States president commuting my sentence, I would still be serving my prison sentence today until the year 2016. Despite receiving executive clemency, one of the collateral consequences of having been incarcerated is losing my right to vote. In 2008, during the most historical presidential election in the United States, I was not able to cast my vote due to state disenfranchisement laws. In Virginia, a convicted person would need to pay an outstanding fines and court costs, complete their supervised release, which I had 60 months of. Then, after completing supervised release, there is a mandatory three- or five-year waiting period before a convicted person can apply for restoration of voting rights, based upon if—whether you have a nonviolent or violent offense. If you have a nonviolent drug charge, you automatically fall within the five-year period, simply because you have a drug case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Kemba Smith, who’s a resident of Virginia herself.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your comment?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Well, you know, Kemba is a friend. I actually lobbied Bill Clinton personally to help get her out, and then I lobbied Governor McDonnell to have her voting rights restored. One of the things that’s so startling about her case—well, there’s two things. One, you know, it’s a classic, what you might call, drug dealer girlfriend case. He was involved in a drug conspiracy for six years. She dated him for one year. He got killed while the FBI was pursuing them. They hit her with the full weight of the six-year conspiracy, even though she had only known him for a year. What she did to help him, she did because he beat her up. I mean, let’s just be really clear. She was coerced.

But Kemba could vote when she lived in the Midwest. She voted in 2008. Then she moved home to Virginia, and her voting rights were stripped from her again. And so, we went back, and we got a case of individual clemency from the governor in time for her to vote in 2012. She and I were there together two days ago and were both very clear. It’s unfair that people like Kemba are still going to have to go through the old process. And we’re going to push to make sure that everybody—because Kemba was a victim of abuse. She never was violent towards anybody. But because it’s a drug crime, it’s classified as violent. And that’s one of the issues here. So, we’ll keep pushing, but, you know, 100,000 to 200,000 of a universe of only 350,000 is big enough to call a victory for this week.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how this works, because in Virginia it’s a conservative Republican governor—


AMY GOODMAN: —McDonnell. Before that was Governor Kaine—


AMY GOODMAN: —the Democrat.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Democrat who had been a civil rights lawyer and refused to do this. And, you know, I mean—and I lobbied him, a lot of people lobbied him very directly, and he just wouldn’t do it. It was a matter of principle with him that was, frankly—it was hard to understand why. But when you back up and you look more generally, the issue often with Democrats is that they fear being perceived as being soft on crime. With Republicans, on the other hand, even though they don’t share that same fear, they fear the impact. They say, “Look, this is 100,000 poor people. They’re going to tend to vote Democrat. Why would we do this?” And that’s what makes what McDonnell did so courageous, is he said, “Look, it may not be in our partisan self-interest. It may not be in the personal interest of my career,” although you can make an argument that it may help a Republican in some ways. “But it’s the right thing to do, so I’m just going to go ahead and do it.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a report on felon disenfranchisement in Florida published in April by the South Florida Times. The article points out Florida Governor Rick Scott has, quote, “made it more difficult for Floridians with past felony convictions to get their voting rights restored—a situation critics say has suppressed the minority vote and hurt Democratic candidates.”

The article goes on to say, quote, “As one of his first actions after taking office in 2011, Scott, as [chairman] of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, undid automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent ex-offenders that previous Gov. Charlie Crist helped adopt in 2007. Since then, the number of former felons who have had their voting rights restored has slowed to a trickle, even compared with the year before Crist and the clemency board helped make the process easier.”

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Now, that’s—look, Rick Scott is a classic vote suppressor. Rick Scott is somebody who says, “Look, it’s just not in the interest of my party for these folks to vote. And I’m going to do whatever I can.” He’s attacked Sunday voting. He’s attacked, you know, ex-felons. He’s attacked every single way he can think to—in fact, he even made it hard to register people to vote. He had the sheriffs threatening my folks the beginning of last year, said that they would take them to jail if the voter registration form they were seeking to have filled out by a citizen was out of the clerk’s office for more than 48 hours. And as they showed up the day after Martin Luther King Day, his sheriffs were trying to put our folks in jail. So—but Rick Scott—we actually succeeded in registering as many people in Florida in 2012 as we did in the whole country in 2008. So, these people can be beaten back.

It should be pointed out, it wasn’t just Charlie Crist; it was Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, who worked together, because this started under Bush, and it was finished under Crist. There are Republicans, rather mainstream Republicans, who believe in redemption and will take risks for it. There are others who have kind of become the new mainstream, who are willing to do whatever they can to suppress the vote. And that’s why I think it’s important that those of us on the left are willing to say, “Look, I may not agree with you on all things, I may not agree with you on most things, but there’s this is one thing that we agree on, so let’s get that done.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On other matters, I wanted to raise to you this whole question—the Supreme Court will be deciding very soon on the issue of voting rights. Your sense of what it looks like in terms of the court’s decision and the importance of this decision?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: We’ve chosen to remain optimistic, because the Supreme Court has upheld the Voting Rights Act, including Section 5, four times in the past four decades. And it would be an outrageous violation of multiple recent precedents for them to strike down Section 5 now, especially because it was passed unanimously—well, 98 of 100 senators voting for, two abstaining—after 15,000—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Section 5, for those who don’t—who don’t know what it means?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Section 5 is—yes, Section 5 is the part that gives the federal government, in certain states, in certain counties, in places like the Bronx here in New York or Monterey County in California, where I grew up, the power to preempt changes in how elections are administered, or election law itself, that seem to have a racially disparate impact, that seem to be designed to keep black and brown folks out of the ballot box. And so, that’s what they’re going after right now.

And, quite frankly, they’re going after it from Shelby County. And the only argument they can make is, “Well, this county is in Ohio. Shelby County down in Bama hasn’t changed. Like, Alabama, some parts have changed. Shelby County hasn’t changed in the last 40 years,” and everything he says there. But what they’re saying is, “Well, there’s counties in Ohio that should be in two” — well, yes they should. But the bottom line is, there’s nothing about this formula that’s unfair to Shelby County. Shelby County has been a place that for hundreds of years has resisted the very idea of democracy. And so, we’re saying, “Look, they’ve upheld it four times in four decades. They will uphold it a fifth time. If they don’t, it will be one of the most retrograde, turn-back-the-clock, activist moments in recent court history, and we just don’t think that Justice Kennedy wants that to be his legacy.”

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