I opened up my phone on Monday, April 25 and checked Facebook. It was a normal tick that I have, that many people in my generation have, of checking a favorite mobile application when nothing else is going on. But one of the first headlines I saw on my newsfeed turned an ordinary moment into one I hope I never forget.
“Virginia Governor Restores Voting Rights to Felons,” the New York Times headline read. The fact that the story was from Friday, April 22, meant that I was a bad journalist – late to hear about a story happening in my own backyard.
Despite that, my duty as a human overrode my duty as a professional and as soon as I read that headline I instantly understood what that meant for someone special in my life: my father. My father, a Virginia resident for the gross majority of his life and an ex-felon, was disenfranchised by Virginia’s law banning former felons from voting.
He committed a felony and served time for that crime over 45 years ago, when he was in the same age range that I’m in now, his late 20s. He was one of over 200,000 convicted felons in Virginia to have his right to vote restored by the executive order that Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law. Before that, he was one of over 5.85 million Americans, according to the Sentencing Project, to have his voting rights stripped from him.
My father and mother aren’t politically active on a grassroots level, but politics, typically mainstream politics, are a constant conversation in my household. My parents both have their political opinions that are balked at by the other. But, before April 22, only one of them could actually go out and express their politics in the form of a vote.
My father’s inability to vote has been a persistent thread in his life and mine. He is the eldest son of Phyllis Costley, my grandmother, who fought for the desegregation of Arlington’s schools, and had crosses burned in his yard as a result of her part in that struggle. So he understood from an early age the importance of the achievement and conservation of civil rights.
And I think the knowledge that he couldn’t vote freed him to hold and express political opinions others might not if they had their vote, and perhaps their ideology, tied to a mainstream political party that asks them to concede some of their interests every two, four and six years.
He listened to “Democracy Now” daily while carting me to school and freely expressed his opposition to the war in Iraq after 9/11. His politics became reborn in a positive nihilism that allowed him to imagine a world of his own choosing because he had no right to participate in the political world of his country.
At times the denial of those rights was frustrating. I saw the reserved frustration on his face when George Bush was elected to office twice and he couldn’t help sway the swing state he lived in. And in 2008, while black Americans of his generation all over the country proudly cast a ballot for Barack Obama to become the first black President, my father watched from the sidelines. He was spurred by the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency to inquire about appealing to get his rights restored.
But Virginia’s process, which then consisted of a stack full of paperwork just for a hope and a prayer, was enough to discourage my father, who works 70 hours or more a week, from attempting to get his rights restored. At that point he had been what’s called an “upstanding citizen” for decades, but couldn’t participate in the society that he was enhancing as a citizen.
Today millions of others across the country have a similar reality that my dad faced in 2008 and this reality disproportionately affects blacks. According to the Sentencing Project, one out of every 13 black people has lost their right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement as opposed to 1 out of every 56 non-black people.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in a phenomena that’s called the New Jim Crow, which denies blacks, and other people of color, the same rights as whites through systematic oppression.
When this systematic oppression is overcome in even the slightest way, like how it was when I found out my dad can now vote, my initial reaction is elation. I posted a photo of a letter saying that his rights were restored to Facebook and it got over 200 likes. Parents of some of my lifelong friends commented on the post, congratulating my dad and wishing him well, saying they knew him to be a good man.
I got choked up at the news of Governor McAuliffe’s executive order and called my dad and told him that I got choked up. He said that he had, too. Then we chuckled about how his political opinions were no longer benign. But we both knew, as we chuckled and enjoyed that moment, that there is still a long way to go.
Drew Costley is the News Editor of the Falls Church News-Press.