When Carol Bradley-Cousins got her voting rights restored in 2015, she had already paid nearly $15,000 in fines to the Commonwealth of Virginia and was denied twice before succeeding on her third try. Since then, she has voted in every election, with 2016 being the first in which she cast a ballot.
“It was like I hit the lottery,” Bradley-Cousins told The Root. “I was overjoyed. I voted every time that I have been able to vote after that. Even if it was just something small or somebody running for councilman or whatever. If I knew about it, I went and voted. It’s very important to me because I want other people to see how important it is for us to vote. It was a struggle for African Americans to vote. And now, with all that restoration of rights and stuff like that, it’s even more important to me. I want to recruit anybody that I can recruit and show them that they need to vote.”
Just last week, she convinced several young men to begin the restoration process, and before that, she helped some people in her family and folks she’d run into in the streets of Richmond while volunteering for voter rights organizations in Virginia. For her, it is a passion to see that every person has a right to participate in democracy regardless of their mistakes in life. As Bradley-Cousins sees it, if she can’t vote, she should not be obligated to participate in other aspects of being a citizen that requires her to pay into the system.
“Why shouldn’t we be able to vote? This is our country,” she said. “We should be able to speak about what goes on in our country. We live here. You don’t have no problem with taking out taxes for this country. So why can’t we speak on stuff? I’ll be 54 next month. So I think this should be a rule: If I can’t vote, I shouldn’t have to pay taxes.”
People with felonies in Virginia, or “returning citizens” as activists like to refer to recently released people seeking their rights to vote, do not have as difficult a time to vote that Bradley-Cousins endured since then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe used his executive power to begin the process of restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions. The Republican-led legislature at the time sued McAuliffe and the state’s supreme court ruled that the former governor could not restore rights in a wide swath. So he ended up restoring rights individually instead. So far, more than 200,000 people with felonies have had their rights restored and the process is much easier for people—especially since Virginia has a supermajority that is devoted to seeing that every person has the right to vote.
Republicans, on the other hand, don’t want to see every U.S. citizen cast a ballot.
In this year’s election, early voting has been encouraged since Donald Trump has gutted the United States Postal Service of resources to mail out and return mail-in and absentee ballots in a timely manner. Last week, election experts encouraged voters to drop off ballots instead of mailing them because of the conservative U.S. Supreme Court’s contradictory rulings on which states mail-in ballots will and won’t be counted post-Election Day. For returning citizens, the process for getting people to vote is even more challenging because, depending on which state they live in, the process of restoring one’s rights is cumbersome and fraught with Republican opposition, such was the case with Virginia.
The Sentencing Project reports that 5.2 million people cannot vote because of a felony conviction, with some states making it harder than others for people to get that right back. One in 16 Black Americans is disenfranchised from voting, which is 3.7 times greater than that of non-Black Americans. More than 6.2 percent of Black American adults are stripped of their right to vote compared to 1.7 percent of the non-Black Americans. Only the District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont allow people with felonies to vote—even while incarcerated. Activists have been advocating for years to end the discriminatory practice of taking voting rights away from people with felony convictions, but the high stakes in this year’s elections make the need for every vote to be counted more vital than ever.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia registers people to vote whenever they make contact with the Department of Motor Vehicles, no ID is needed to vote and residents no longer have to provide excuses for absentee ballots. Technically, returning citizens are permanently barred from voting and the governor still has to sign off to restore their rights when they are not under supervision.
Maya Castillo, the political director for New Virginia Majority, says while her organization has a good relationship with the governor’s office, it is challenging to get information to returning citizens that they can, in fact, get their voting rights back.
“The initial conversations always start with folks in the community saying, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that.’ We actually follow up with, ‘You know, there’s a process. Can you try to get your rights restored?’ There’s a lot of folks who go, ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean?’ Part of that is that four years ago in ‘16 when all of this was happening there was so much attention and it was all over the news and people knew that if you didn’t get the news, [you didn’t know],” she said. “So, the conversations generally start with, ‘Hey, let me show you. Let’s work through this application together.’”
Though Virginia’s constitution still bars returning citizens from voting without the governor’s signature, at least it is not Florida, which is essentially charging a poll tax. In 2018, voters in the state decided via a referendum that people convicted of felonies should have their rights automatically restored. But Trump supporter Ron DeSantis also barely won that gubernatorial election and worked with the GOP-controlled legislature to require those with felonies wanting to vote to first pay off fees associated with their convictions. It set off a lot of confusion among people who believed the 2018 referendum restored their rights and by the fact that the state has not been helpful in navigating impacted communities through the restoration process.
For example, last month an Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 Florida state law that requires returning citizens to pay fees, fines, costs and restitution associated with their convictions. But some 85,000 people who registered before the ruling must be allowed to vote with a regular ballot instead of a provisional one, according to a lawyer for county supervisors of elections.
Demond Meade, founder and executive director of Florida Rights Restoration Committee (FRRC), told The Root that his organization has been working with wealthy donors to pay people’s fees and to educate people about the process to regain their voting rights. But COVID-19 pandemic has made those efforts much more challenging than usual, and Meade said he and other activist groups have been doing the work of the state to support returning citizens. Meade said FRRC has raised over $27,000,000 and paid off fines and fees for over 40,000 people, much of which has come from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, as well as LeBron James’ non-profit More Than A Vote. It is not clear how many of those people have voted.
So far, Florida has seen record-breaking turnout for early voting and Meade is confident many of those who have cast ballots are returning citizens. Long-term, he says their votes in the state of Florida will be a political force.
“We are literally the difference between whether or not a person wins or loses. When you talk about the State of Florida, determining who gets into the White House. We’ve seen elections that were decided by less than 600 votes. And then subsequent elections an average of a hundred thousand votes. There’s 1.4 million of us.”
There is no data collected on how many returning citizens have cast ballots across the nation. But because of the massive efforts to get these communities to the polls, we’ll likely know in post-election studies and, perhaps earlier, in exit polling.
Either way, Meade believes this election will empower returning citizens in ways that any party or candidate will have to respect.
“We have a very unprecedented opportunity to really dig deeper into some serious substantive criminal justice reform,” Meade said. “We’re a force to be reckoned with now. Moving forward, we have midterm elections, we have elections in which the main actors in criminal justice, whether they be sheriffs, prosecutors, judges, they all get elected. And now they are going to all have to come through us.”