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He's suing Virginia's governor to get his voting rights back: 'I paid my dues'

Posted at 5:55 PM, Jun 27, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- In his 52 years, Tati King has never worn one of those "I voted" stickers, but not by choice. After serving time and doing probation for a felony drug possession offense, King has worked to get his voting rights restored to no avail.

Virginia is one of three states where a formerly incarcerated felon does not have their rights restored upon completion of their sentence.

King is part of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Protect Democracy to challenge the provision of Virginia's Constitution that automatically strips voting rights from felons. Their legal argument centers on a federal law that dates to years after the Civil War.

"One hurdle over the next hurdle, you know. I did something wrong; I readily admitted that. I paid my way; I paid my dues," King said. “When will this come off of my back? When will people stop seeing me as an ex-con or convicted felon?”

The lawsuit is based on the Virginia Readmission Act, which was passed in 1870 to prevent the Commonwealth — and other former Confederate states — from taking away a person's voting rights unless they committed one of nine felonies.

During Reconstruction, Southern states would charge Black Americans with crimes — sometimes fabricated — with the intent to keep them from voting.

In 1870, "common law" felonies were widely understood to be a distinct category of crime from "statutory" felonies and included murder, manslaughter, arson, burglary, robbery, rape, sodomy, mayhem, and larceny, the lawsuit states. Virginia later amended its constitution to disenfranchise citizens for conduct that was not a common law felony in 1870.

Today, Virginia's criminal code designates numerous crimes as felonies, including drug offenses.

“It's never too late to right or wrong. It's been 150 years," said Rachel Homer, the attorney representing the plaintiffs with Protect Democracy. "People convicted of any other felonies, like Mr. King, shouldn't have lost their rights to begin with. So we applaud rights restoration, but that does not fix the legal problem here.”

Governor Glenn Youngkin (R - Virginia) would not comment on the lawsuit when asked about it at an event on Tuesday.

The Governor said his administration is following what the Virginia Constitution dictates.

"What we've been doing is following the law and the Constitution. Each person who is returning from being incarcerated is due a full review, individually. It's very clear. And so that's what I've committed to do," Youngkin said.

While previous administrations worked to streamline the felony rights restoration process in Virginia, Youngkin's office switched back to the case-by-case review.

The Governor promised money and resources to make to speed up that process.

"We've hired in a dedicated leader to make sure that this process moves quickly, and we've committed ourselves to move faster. So, we are following the law as it is written," Youngkin said.

Even though he cannot vote, King takes his grandchildren to the polls every year and stresses the importance of the process to his family.

"I want to be able to say, let’s all of us go together, and let’s go vote," he said.

Although he feels confident about the prospects of the legal challenge, King hopes his action leaves behind a legacy in Virginia, regardless of the outcome of a lawsuit.

"I'm already set in history to where there's somebody who took that initiative and said, you know what, I'll put myself on the front line, I'll be the one to go. And then, we'll just go from there," King said. “I'm hearing about issues and I'm seeing the things in my community that are touching me, and I want to be a voice for those who don't believe that the system works. You know, and I can show them say, hey, it does.”

A federal judge in Richmond will decide a hearing date for the lawsuit in the coming days and weeks.

The lawsuit says Virginia has the fifth-highest number of citizens disenfranchised for felony convictions — at over 312,000 — and that Black residents have been disproportionately affected. Black Virginians comprise less than 20% of Virginia's voting-age population but account for nearly half of all Virginians disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, the lawsuit states.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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