By Jenée Desmond-Harris
In 1994 Kemba Smith was sentenced to 24 1/2 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a cocaine ring. The story of the harsh punishment dealt to a minor player — who admitted to lying and breaking the law for her abusive boyfriend but never used or sold drugs — caught the attention of criminal-justice advocates across the country.
After serving six-and-a-half years and receiving a presidential pardon in 2000, Smith, who told The Root that she felt a sense of “survivor’s guilt” even after she was allowed to vote again, became an advocate in her own right.
Her latest cause is a partnership with civil rights group the Advancement Project to raise awareness about Virginia’s felon-disenfranchisement law. The commonwealth is one of four states that permanently take away a citizen’s right to vote after a felony conviction. (To cast a ballot again, citizens who have served their sentences must get individual petitions approved by the governor.) This means that 350,000 people — one-fifth of the state’s African-American population — simply can’t participate in the electoral process.
We talked to Smith about her support for the push to get Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to issue an executive order for automatic voting-rights restoration, misconceptions about felon disenfranchisement and why she thinks that withholding the right to vote represents “the opposite of redemption.”