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.

KS: I want him to acknowledge the wrong from this policy and the original intent from when it was created. In 1901 Virginia state Delegate Carter Glass said, “This plan will eliminate the darky as a political factor in this state in less than five years.”

I had the opportunity to go to the United Nations in Geneva as part of the NAACP delegation. It was kind of surreal, just hearing other nations’ human-rights representatives be in disbelief that we’re going through this in Virginia. They assume that because we are one of the most democratic nations in the world, this wouldn’t be a problem here.

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.