Levar Stoney was the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia until April 15, 2016. In this position, he handled the Governor’s clemency powers, including petitions from formerly incarcerated people seeking to reclaim the right to vote. (Virginia, like most states, strips the right to vote from those who are incarcerated. But when compared with the process of voter rights restoration in other states, it is unusually difficult for Virginians to regain suffrage after incarceration.) When Governor Terry McAuliffe took office in 2014, Secretary Stoney’s office began an effort resulting in the restoration of voting rights for more than 16,000 formerly incarcerated men and women—more people than those whose rights were restored by the previous three administrations combined.
[Editor's note: On April 15, 2016, Levar Stoney resigned his post as Secretary of the Commonwealth. He declared his candidacy for mayor on April 21, and won the election in November through broad-based support from Richmond voters. On December 31, Mr. Stoney was sworn in as the 80th Mayor of Richmond.]
Coming into this, I did not know as much about the process as I know now. But I have a personal connection: my father was convicted of a felony in New York many years ago, and I recall him being under the impression that he couldn’t participate in the civics process. I read up on this and told him, “no, dad, I think you’re ok,” because in New York the process is more automatic in terms of restoring your right to vote once you’ve done your time. I was able to get him registered, and though he passed away a couple of years back at age 49, he was able to participate in his first election. He voted for President Obama in 2008.
My dad had to face the fact that when you have a felony conviction on your record, it is difficult to get a job. I recall door after door being slammed in my dad’s face, and him stressing out about what was going to be the next move, and whether to check that box that says, “I’ve been convicted of a crime.” Those are tough decisions—and scary decisions—for individuals to make, particularly when they’re responsible for putting food on the table and a roof over their children’s heads.
A lot of the people who we encounter in this process of restoring voting rights are just trying to get a foot in the door. When they receive a grant order certifying their right to vote, it makes them so proud. They can present that document to an employer and prove that they’ve taken every step possible to better themselves. It’s my wish that we could go beyond this, providing them with that piece of paper and also erasing the stigma that comes along with a felony conviction. But I tell folks that we’re doing a whole lot more than just restoring their voting rights; we’re also restoring their dignity. Studies show that when you restore a formerly incarcerated person’s right to vote, more than likely they will not reoffend. And that’s what we want. We want them being full, productive members of society.
I do believe—I say this all the time and I’m not afraid to say it—that you can still find Jim Crow in some of the laws that govern the Commonwealth of Virginia. Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Gone are the days of the poll tax and the literacy test. But felon disfranchisement remains. And that hurts the African American community in a disparate manner compared to any other community. I think that’s why the obstacles to getting one’s vote back are on the books. These laws seek to restrict who can participate, who has access to the franchise.
When we took office and realized that there were over 400,000 people who were disenfranchised in the Commonwealth—that’s 7% of the state’s population, and 20% of the African American community—we understood that this creates a disadvantage for this community. There are folks who want formerly incarcerated men and women to jump through lots of hoops to restore their rights to vote. But our administration sees it differently. We’re a more second-chance sort of people. We think that once you’ve paid your debt to society by doing your time, you should not be punished for the remainder of your life. And with all that we’ve done to restore voting rights, we now have 16,000 new citizens.
We looked at what held this process back, and how we could unleash the process. Number one, the waiting period for more serious offenders—we reduced that from five years to three years. Number two, drug offenses, which plague the African American community—more African Americans are in our penal system due to drug offenses than for any other reason—we made those offenses non-violent crimes, which means that once you’ve done your time, you can get your right to vote back without a waiting period simply by petitioning the Governor. But the most significant policy change we made is that no one will be banned any longer from petitioning the Governor due to owing court costs, court fees, and restitution. We believe that this obstacle was akin to the poll tax. After all, tell me this: a person who has a $25,000 tax lien can vote, but someone who owes $500 in court costs couldn’t vote? Give me a break. That’s just unacceptable.
The story that sticks out most vividly for me started at a forum I attended here in Richmond at Trinity Baptist Church. While I was leaving, an older woman named Ellen Tomiye who had driven up from Portsmouth approached me. She explained that she owed about $24,000 in court costs from writing bad checks. With tears in her eyes, she said, “I’m never going to be able to vote in any election in my life. It’s my hope that my grandchildren will. But I will not.” Her story stayed with me. I later read about her in the Virginian Pilot. I learned that she runs a pretty successful restaurant down in Portsmouth—she works for herself, because no one would hire her. I called the clerk’s office in Portsmouth myself and asked, “Is this true that she has all this debt?” And the clerk said it was. When we made the decision to change the policy of restricting voting for individuals who owe court costs, I was able to call her 30 minutes before the governor’s press conference. She was driving down in Hampton Roads, and I said, “Miss Ellen, I’m calling you today because in a half hour the governor is going to change the policy to restore your right to vote.” She started crying right there on the spot. And she said, “you’re lying.” And then, “let me pull over!” I said, “I’m telling the truth—today we will restore your right to vote.” That same day she was out in her community telling everyone in her situation how to get their rights to vote back. What we see often is that people who have been through the process, who have waited so long, want to help out the next person. It brings out the best in who we are. The exceptionally punitive nature of some of our laws—that’s not really Virginia talking.
The City of Richmond and the Commonwealth of Virginia have taken the proper step of banning the box on employment applications asking about past convictions. But after an individual is hired, the employer is allowed to do a background check—and sometimes that results in a formerly incarcerated person being dismissed. What I think we could do better is collaborate with the private sector to put people to work. I don’t know how many times I’ve visited the Richmond City Justice Center and heard people say, “Well, Secretary Stoney, I’ll get out of here. But in six weeks or six months, I could be back in here because I don’t have the skills to survive. A job at McDonald’s doesn’t pay the bills, keep a roof over my children’s heads, and food on the table.” And I understand that. We have to do our part to provide individuals with skills—workforce-ready skills—to enable them to actually participate in society. If we don’t do that, then they’re going to find themselves back on the inside. Government shouldn’t be in the business of having to house citizens on a daily basis because we haven’t done our part in terms of rehabilitation and workforce opportunities.
I think leaders on both sides of the aisle can come together and work out reforms on criminal justice. I saw that in working with both sides while co-chairing the Governor’s Commission on Parole Review. The report that we provided resulted from a frank conversation about whether our criminal justice system is fair and is actually rehabilitating people. We recommended more funding for drug courts and diversion programs, and raising the threshold at which larceny is considered a felony. In Virginia, that line is $200—you could receive a felony conviction for stealing an iPhone—and we’re one of just two states where that is the case. My hope is that we enact some of these recommendations, and hopefully make a greater dent and difference in the lives of others. And if I ever have the opportunity to serve as mayor, I’m going to work day in and day out to close the door on the cycle of poverty and recidivism. We have to see what more we can do.
—interviewed January 19, 2016