On a Tuesday afternoon in December, Richard Walker stood on the corner outside the city’s social services building and hollered.
“Hey! I’m helping people who’ve got a felony conviction like me get their rights back. You know anybody like that?” Walker, 57, called out to office workers in suits, the women in line for cheap cell phones and the young man pushing a baby stroller down East Marshall Street. Every few minutes he brought someone back to a card table where he patiently explained the forms they would need to fill out to have their right to vote restored after a felony conviction. Walker soothed their worries: It’s OK if you have outstanding fines, it’s OK if it was a long time ago, it’s all OK. For three hours, he moved nonstop. Then he tallied up the forms he had stuffed into a manila envelope and walked them across the street to the government office where they would be processed.
Twenty-five people more were on the way to regaining their right to vote, a tiny share of the hundreds of thousands in Virginia who cannot vote because they have been convicted of a felony. But it’s a start, says Walker, who had his own rights restored in 2012 after a conviction for cocaine possession.
Across the country, an estimated 5.85 million U.S. citizens cannot vote because they have a felony conviction on their record, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization. Most of those affected are out of prison and on probation, parole or have completed their sentence.
Reformers say the concept — known as felony voter disenfranchisement — runs counter to basic ideas about democracy and leaves entire communities without a voice in close elections.