Christopher Rashad Green came home from work the night of Aug. 15, 2016, to find a letter from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe waiting in his mailbox.
“When I sit down on my bed … and I open it up, I’m not going to lie to you, I was so proud and thankful at the same time,” Green says.
After his 2013 release from prison, where Green was serving time for a burglary conviction, he devoted his life to activism. Green dove into a project reclaiming a set of African-American remains discovered at the bottom of a Richmond-area well and joined a campaign to raise the minimum wage.
Still, there was one tool for making change he longed to reclaim that he had lost when he was locked away: the right to vote.
The letter from the governor gave it back to him.
“Immediately, I called my mother,” he says.
It was like a weight had been lifted from him.
Virginia is one of four states that permanently bars convicted felons from voting — even after they’ve completed their sentence and probation.
Green is one of 156,000 Virginians whose voting rights have been restored by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a record-setting number, beating the previous mark set by Florida Governor Charlie Crist from 2007 to 2011.
“Restoring their voting rights once they have served their time does not pardon their crimes or restore their firearm rights, but it provides them with a meaningful second chance through full citizenship,” McAuliffe said in a statement.
Green was one of 200,000 Virginian “returning citizens” who were initially granted their right to vote via a blanket order from McAuliffe in April 2016 — an action that was overturned in court after a challenge by state Republicans.
The ruling stripped Green and others — who were briefly able to register to vote — of their franchise again.
In response, McAuliffe’s administration began a massive effort to restore voting rights to citizens one by one.
Some applied via an electronic form. Others were identified by a data operation in collaboration with law enforcement, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, and other state agencies. Once it was determined that a returning citizen had been released from all forms of supervision, an individual grant order was prepared, signed electronically by the governor, and mailed out.
“I think people tend to think these are all terrible, awful people who are rapists and murderers, and they’re not,” Kelly Thomasson, Virginia’s secretary of the commonwealth, whose office is responsible for restoring civil rights to eligible citizens. “If you steal an iPhone, you will be convicted of a felony. The larceny threshold in Virginia is $200.”
It’s a rare victory for a demographic that’s often overlooked by policymakers, and it took Virginia nearly a year to individually restore 156,000 people’s voting rights.
A study by the Sentencing Project found that 13% of adult black men are disqualified from voting due to a felony conviction.
These men account for nearly 35% of all voters nationwide barred from voting.
“We see the high levels, where people commit acts of misconduct and egregious things, and they’re forgiven,” Green explains. “They’re given second chances whether because they have money, prestige, or fame. But those at the bottom, those like us living in the trenches, we’re not worthy of redemption?”
The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website is now home to testimonials from re-enfranchised voters from all walks of life — some from residents who regained the right to vote after decades barred from casting a ballot.
“I have goosebumps right now talking about it because even though I’ve been doing this job for three-and-a-half years, hearing those stories never gets old,” Thomasson says.
For years, Green says he was cynical about the political process — and the inattention to poor and minority communities from those in government.
“Our communities aren’t getting what we need, and no matter how good our elected officials are and how much they care about the community, you see the disparities. You see the inequity,” he says.
Now, he’s determined to put his newfound voting voice to use. Next month, he will leaving his job as a cook in Virginia Commonwealth University’s cafeteria to become an organizer with New Virginia Majority, registering some of the same voters who recently had their rights restored.
In the meantime, he plans to continue advocating for the causes close to his heart — Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, and civil rights for former felons — in his work at the House of Delegates and now, finally, at the ballot box.
“It can work,” he says. “I’ve seen it work.”