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From Jail to the Voting Booth: The Virginia Story of Frank Anderson

By Mike Signer | March 21, 2011 | No Comments

To put it lightly, Frank Anderson challenges stereotypes. The Burke resident is an ex-felon–a convicted burglar who robbed a house when he was twenty and spent two years in prison. And up until last year, he could not vote.

But the Burke resident has focused on precisely that issue, becoming an activist on the issue of restoration of rights for ex-felons in Virginia. He challenges stereotypes in other ways. Many ex-offenders simply land right back in jail. But today Frank is happily married, about to be a young father, and is finishing his degree at George Mason University in public policy and political science. Since his release from jail, he’s worked as an anti-war activist and a campaign staffer. He’s looking ahead to a career in public policy.

How did he turn things around? Two things: he credits his wife, a Virginia public school teacher, with believing in him. And he credits reform-driven prison programs for young offender with helping turn his life around.

NDP recently sat down with Frank on the campus of Northern Virginia Community College, his alma mater, to talk about his experience at the extremes of society—from jail to activist.

Frank couldn’t vote for over a decade. Virginia is one of only two states in the country that prevents ex-offenders from voting for life unless they successfully petition the governor to restore their rights. These laws go back to the Jim Crow era. They were designed to prevent African-Americans—who then composed the bulk of felons—from voting.

Frank Anderson got trapped through a story that will sound familiar to many. His youth was filled with both dreams and self-inflicted setbacks. In his teens, he belonged to alternative rock bands. When he graduated high school, he didn’t head to college. Instead, he left home to pursue his dream of becoming a rock star. He moved around frequently with his identical twin brother, from Maryland to Richmond. He even imagined going to California.

But he was also held back by a dark side. As a teenager, Frank picked up a stupid habit of stealing. He usually stole from stores. But he gradually became bolder, more reckless. One night, he crossed a line he had avoided in the past, and burglarized a home. The resident happened to be home. He heard Frank break in and immediately called the police. Frank fled, but the police sent a dog after him. Caught red-handed, he was sent to jail.

Frank’s parents were shocked, and he was rightly ashamed and terrified. Because of his young age, a generous judge granted the young thief entry to a young offenders program that gave him the opportunity for an early release with therapy, hard work, and good behavior.

Frank joined regular Therapeutic Community sessions that taught inmates to learn empathy, remorse, and to connect with others. He was given a job as a nutritionist where he was paid small amounts and exceeded expectations. One day, his mother came and visited him; weeping, she embraced him while a newspaper photographer snapped their photo, as a skeptical guard looked on.

Frank was released after about two years in jail. After his release, Frank began the long path to becoming a full and active member of society. He first became an activist by protesting the Iraq War, which he felt was immoral. He met his wife in line for George W. Bush’s inauguration, where he planned to stand as a voice of protest.

Frank continued his activism as a student at Northern Virginia Community College, where he took up the cause of voting rights by registering voters. During this time, he says, “I always felt I was making up for the fact that I couldn’t vote.”

He decided to pursue the restoration of his own rights because, he said, “I don’t feel like a full citizen if I can’t vote.”

Many reformers believe it makes far more sense to give ex-offenders the responsibility for society that voting rights entail, rather than giving them a pass by locking them out of governance. That’s why so many states have changed their laws in recent years. Even George W. Bush, when he was the Republican Governor of Texas, changed the law. But Virginia stands alone with Kentucky as the only two states that prevent ex-offenders from voting for life, unless they apply for restoration.

In Virginia, the Governor and his staff consider each application. Serious reform of the application process began under Governor Mark Warner, who simplified the application process and dramatically increased the number of restorations. Governor Tim Kaine picked up the progress as well. As we recently wrote, Governor McDonnell has done an impressive job of shifting the application process to make it almost automatic, restoring over 80% of those who have applied.

When Frank received his voting rights back, we asked him what the experience of voting was like. “I got my card in the mail,” he recalled. “The next day, I went and registered to vote . . . That felt really good.” He explained: “Being a voter, it means people pay attention you, politicians pay attention to you. They knock on your door.”

Frank voted for the first time in the hotly contested election between Congressman Gerry Connolly and his challenger, Keith Fimian. “It turned out to be an election that was decided by less than 900 votes,” he said, “So I feel like I made a difference there.”

How does he see the future? “I would love to find a position working on policy, love to work on voting rights, of course.” Most specifically, he says, “I want to influence public policy.”

Talk about demolishing stereotypes!

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