Kemba Smith's Fight for Felon Voting Rights

Her own infamous sentence for a nonviolent offense behind her, she's become a civil rights advocate.

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So we are calling on Gov. McDonnell to issue an executive order to make rights restoration automatic. I'm not trying to put Gov. McDonnell in a bad light, because I appreciate all he's done -- others haven't been as progressive as he is on this particular issue. I hope he will make a stand and do what [has needed] to be done for a long time now. I just think now's the time.

TR: What's the most difficult part of this type of advocacy?

KS: That some see voting as a privilege. If people are worried about murderers getting their rights restored, well, if a person has served their debt to society, people have to believe in redemption. Once the Department of Corrections has done what they need to do, a person needs to be restored. They need to be the equivalent, politically, as other people. If they're even looking in that direction, it means they want to have a better life.

Even though I was granted my petition, there are over 4 million people across the country [who are disenfranchised]. This is not an easy topic. At one of our college tours, I had a student approach me and say voting was a privilege. He held a grudge.

Not to take away from that or minimize that, but overall there needs to be a re-education ... about formerly incarcerated individuals and our criminal-justice system as a whole, because eventually one of [the] over 2 million [currently] incarcerated people will be your neighbor. We don't want to push people away or generalize about people. That's the opposite of redemption.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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