An emotional Kemba Smith Pradia cast her first vote in November, but it wasn't on the soil of her native Virginia. Pradia, 40, voted in the Indianapolis city elections.
The Hermitage High School graduate did not register to vote as an 18-year-old. "Obviously, during my younger years, I didn't understand the significance," she said.
But as a result of a felony conviction, she lost her right to vote in Virginia. The significance became painfully clear when she was denied the chance to cast a ballot in the historic 2008 presidential election.
On behalf of her vote and that of millions of other U.S. citizens, Pradia traveled last week with a delegation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to meet with the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
"It was pretty thrilling and coincides with many blessings that have been bestowed upon me by my release," she said during a phone interview Monday from her home in Indiana.
As a student at Hampton University, she began dating a drug dealer who played a large role in a major crack cocaine ring. Convicted of drug-related offenses at 22, she was sentenced in 1994 to 24½ years in federal prison, despite no prior criminal record or evidence that she sold, handled or used drugs. She was granted clemency by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Pradia was grateful for the opportunity to give back to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which worked to secure her release. Also, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous — then a Rhodes scholar — was among the first people to bring Pradia's case to Clinton's attention.
The delegation drew inspiration from a historic precedent — a 1947 appeal to the U.N. by NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois. The topic, then and now: challenges to full voter participation in the United States.
Those challenges include stepped-up voter eligibility requirements, new voter ID laws, more restrictive laws on voter registration and an old problem — felon disenfranchisement laws imposed to curtail the black political gains of Reconstruction.
"They were pretty much in disbelief that this was going on in the United States," Pradia said of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
More than 300,000 people with felony convictions have lost their right to vote in Virginia, a state where the population is about 20 percent black but more than half of the disenfranchised are African-American.
While most states restore voting rights upon the completion of a sentence, parole or supervised release, Virginia, Florida, Iowa and Kentucky permanently disenfranchise felons unless the state restores their rights.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has stepped up voter restoration and is on pace to easily exceed the 4,402 rights restored by predecessor Tim Kaine.
But, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, "the scale of that compared to the scale of disenfranchisement in the state is a drop in the bucket.
"The international perspective is very critical to this issue," Mauer said. He called the disenfranchisement of 5 million U.S. citizens far out of line with the democracies of Canada and Western Europe, where people with felony convictions typically can vote upon their release, if not while incarcerated.
Pradia recalled the shock of a South African member of the U.N. Human Rights Council upon learning the extent that the U.S. removes citizens' voting rights. In South Africa, inmates have the right to vote. In the U.S., only Maine and Vermont allow inmate voting.
Smith — the mother of a toddler daughter and college-bound son — is balancing family life and advocacy, traveling around the country to counsel young people to avoid her mistakes, even as she pushes for fairer drug laws. She has written a memoir, "Poster Child," and a movie is in the works.
After Clinton commuted her sentence, Pradia had nearly five years of supervised release and was facing an additional five-year wait before she could reapply for her voting rights. Several years ago, she married Patrick Pradia, an air traffic controller, and moved to Indianapolis, where she discovered she could vote.
Her husband's job is bringing the family back to Virginia this summer. What should be a joyous homecoming is clouded with uncertainty. What if Pradia can't get her voting rights restored here by November?
"I just would be distraught," she said. "I'd be back at the same position."
This denial of a basic tool of democracy doesn't make sense to her. "Not having my vote count makes me feel like I'm not equal to the other Americans who go to the polls, or at least that's how the government views me. I know better, but it's still an injustice."
With the world watching, can we continue to perpetuate a system so inconsistent with democracy?
Link to original article from The Richmond Times Dispatch