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College students continue the fight for voting rights in Virginia

7/31/2014, 10:21 a.m.
Virginia is one of only four states that permanently takes a citizen’s right to vote away upon being convicted of ...
Virginia New Majority's (VNM) Freedom Summer50 program students the University of Virginia, and Norfolk State University. The students are doing outreach to communities in the Hampton Roads area.

Half a century ago, northern students urged by a desire to bring the Deep South into the realm of real democracy descended upon Mississippi in droves to help African Americans register to vote. Today, Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement and its new voter photo ID law are prompting young students to hit the ground in communities across the Commonwealth to ensure that citizens who are disproportionately impacted by these laws do not lose their access to the fundamental basis of American Democracy – the right to vote.

While many have sought to keep voting a hassle-free process, new laws in southern states like Virginia and North Carolina requiring specific photo identification are being implemented despite the likelihood they’ll have a negative and disproportionate impact on people of color, women, and senior citizens.

Virginia is one of only four states that permanently takes a citizen’s right to vote away upon being convicted of a felony. Despite a simpler process for non-violent felons, the Governor still must restore civil rights on an individual basis. As a result of Virginia denying the right to vote to people with felony convictions, the state currently has one of the nation’s highest levels of disenfranchisement.

While some students will spend their summer on travel or partying, others such as Waameeka AheVonderae, a recent graduate of Howard University from the Bronx, New York will be doing outreach to voters at community centers, churches, barber shops, Laundromats and bus stations to educate, inform and help protect voting rights as part of Virginia New Majority’s (VNM) Freedom Summer50 program.

“The work that I plan to do this summer is important because it sets the groundwork for change in the world. As leaders in the fight for democracy, we are ensuring that the voices of all Americans are heard,” said Waameeka.

While two generations removed from Freedom Summer, she remains clear on its significance.

“Freedom Summer was an historical moment in America's history because it brought people from all walks of life together for the common goal of ensuring the rights of all Americans were protected. I appreciate the sacrifices that the Freedom Summer Volunteers of 1964 made and see it as my duty to pay it forward to our generation,” she added.

VNM brought this year’s interns together in a special remembrance of the sacrifices made by young activists who changed the nation and world by trekking to Mississippi during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

"Fifty years ago people risked their lives for the right to vote. The students of Freedom Summer50 are out in the community today to continue that struggle and expand voting rights for all,” said Claire Tran, Freedom Summer50 coordinator.

Joining Waameeka in the outreach to Richmond voters are Norfolk State University students Shelton Artis of Emporia, Virginia and Daphne Bull from Chester. All are concerned about the push in Virginia and other southern states towards strict photo ID requirements and the potential impact on populations of color, senior citizens, and women. Additionally, their work will also include outreach to formerly incarcerated individuals who were disenfranchised but now have the right to vote.

“I believe that voting is a right not a privileged and I also value the opportunity to be a part of the political process,” said Daphne. “The work that we do this summer is important because by providing the people with the tools they need to vote, they have the power to change their communities.”

For Artis, Freedom Summer legacy as well as the legacy of recent ancestors remains a powerful tool in inspiring him to push for voting rights.

“My uncle was disenfranchised far as his voting rights and I feel that I am representing him,” said Shelton. “Especially, since he passed away a couple months ago. I see equality and progress every time I open my mouth and reach out to others who have been deprived of their voting rights for whatever reasons, including a photo ID.”

VNM’s Freedom Summer50 program also includes students Shanice Hardy from Suffolk and a student at the University of Virginia, as well as Linda Artise of Portsmouth and Norfolk State University. Both are doing outreach to communities in the Hampton Roads area.

Eliana Carballo, a student at George Mason University is doing outreach in Northern Virginia.