“I’m just overwhelmed,” John Barbee said, after he finished filling out a voter registration form in the basement of a Baptist church in Richmond Thursday. The 62-year-old, who was released from prison in 1972, had been trying to register for the past eight years but had been stymied repeatedly by Virginia’s strict felony disenfranchisement law. Barbee was able to register Thursday because Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order on April 22 restoring voting rights to over 200,000 people with past felony convictions who have completed their supervised probation or parole. Previously, ex-offenders had to individually petition the governor to be re-enfranchised. “I had just gave up on the system, period, for trying to help me get registered,” he told The Huffington Post. After he finished filling out the registration form, he turned to his wife. “I feel like a citizen now,” he told her.
Karen Fountain, an organizer with New Virginia Majority, a civic engagement organization, has been registering ex-offenders at a brisk pace since before McAuliffe’s order. She is one of 60 organizers doing voter registration work for the group across the state. On Thursday, she spotted a line of people waiting in the rain for a free lunch outside the Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church.
Fountain followed the crowd into the church’s basement. There, she took over a table and placed a registration form and pen at each seat. She guided a woman through filling out her registration form and then invited the rest of the people in the room to come over and register after they finished eating. The woman who just completed her form did a happy dance in her seat as Fountain told the group that those ex-offenders who were no longer on parole and probation could vote. “It’s wonderful to see them know that they do belong, that they have all their civil rights given back to them,” Fountain said.
New Virginia Majority has registered over 550 ex-offenders since the governor signed his order, or a quarter of the roughly 2,100 ex-offenders who have registered statewide.