There is no political debate here, just Republican objection to moral conviction.
On July 19, the Virginia Supreme Court will begin to hear arguments challenging Governor McAuliffe’s historic order restoring the civil and voting rights to more than 220,000 Virginians. No one understands how important of a step forward this was for Virginia than me. Not only was I the architect of the restoration of rights order as Secretary of the Commonwealth, but I am also the son of a former offender.
My father made a mistake as a young man that followed him for the rest of his life. I remember being a child and watching him walk miles trying to find work, only to have doors literally slammed in his face. Condemning returning citizens like my late father to wear a scarlet letter on their chests for years after they have paid their debt to society only perpetuates the cycle that leads so many back to incarceration.
Despite what opponents to this order would have you believe, those who have had their rights restored are not monsters. They’re Richmonders. They’re Virginians. They’re Americans. These are individuals who have completed their sentences. These are individuals who have held up their hands and said, “I made a mistake, and I am asking for forgiveness.” These are individuals who are trying to become responsible members of our workforce and our society again. But until the historic event that restored their civil and voting rights on April 22nd, they had no voice.
My father’s story is just one example of the struggles returning citizens face. Behind the numbers there are stories to be told. I remember the story of a Vietnam veteran, James Ray, who had his rights restored during my tenure as Secretary of the Commonwealth. James was convicted of a non-violent felony and cried tears of joy when his rights were restored. Under the process that was in place, this man needed to beg to have his voting rights restored — a right that he risked his own life to protect for others.
In granting these rights, Virginia joined the majority of other states who have said they will not tolerate a second-class citizenship. Let us not kid ourselves, refusing to allow returning citizens who have paid their debt to society to vote disproportionately affects the African American community. It was estimated that 1 in 5 of the African American voting-age population had been disenfranchised in Virginia due to the restrictions on individuals with felony records. We should be doing all that we can to encourage people who have been through the criminal justice system to participate in civic society. If they do not feel included in society, if they do not have a voice, how can we expect them to fully re-enter our communities?
The answer to that question seems simple, and yet, there are those that would have us believe this was not the right thing to do. Our friends across the aisle wasted no time lamenting the fact that this Democratic administration had made restorative justice a primary goal. Now, they have taken their case to the Virginia Supreme Court. While the Governor and I chose to stand up and make sure voices were heard, Republicans in Virginia, and Donald Trump, are mobilizing over the idea that voices should continued be silenced.
What’s right is right. There is no political debate here, just Republican objection to moral conviction. The people of Virginia are a caring, compassionate, forgiving people. Being the home of second chances is preferable to being the home of discrimination and disenfranchisement. Amid the backdrop of a national election where the Republican nominee is using the politics of division to preach demagoguery, we are offering unity, inclusion, and hope.
That is why I am challenging those who are objecting to this historic moment, one that moves Virginia out of our sometimes dark and discriminatory past, to take a different approach. Instead of villainizing people who have repented for a mistake, get to know them. Understand their stories and their desire to be once again part of our community. Instead of trying to silence them, encourage them to engage in the process and help make it more democratic. Instead of telling them they shouldn’t be allowed to vote, go out and actually earn their vote.
For me, public service has always been about two things, giving a voice to the voiceless and righting the wrongs. I have always tried to view politics and public service through the lens of people like my father. Though I grew up in a situation that could lead one to a life of apathy, I instead found inspiration in what government could achieve. By standing up for what’s right — by giving a voice to voiceless — we show that our Commonwealth represents forgiveness, despite our contentious past with this issue. As the first African American Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I know first hand that history is our foundation, but it doesn’t need to be our anchor.