“Once I got those rights back … I made it my duty to be here.”
No one takes the right to vote for granted after that right has been taken away. And no one, arguably, rejoices in the right to vote quite like someone who has had that right taken away and then restored again.
“Just bubbling in those little bubbles” on the ballot, says LaVaughn Williams (featured in the above video recorded by Sam Levine of HuffPost), “gave me such a sense of power and excitement. I can’t explain the feeling that I feel right now. I’m just so elated and I hope that my vote makes a difference!”
Tuesday’s election for governor in Virginia is the second chance for as many as 168,000 people like Williams. These Virginians had their voting rights taken away for life, automatically, because they were convicted of a felony — then had them restored under current Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and now have a chance to vote for his successor.
HuffPost’s Levine has been posting Twitter videos of people who’ve voted Tuesday for the first time in decades, or ever. “I never thought that I would be in this situation right now,” Williams told him. “If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said no, I would never vote. But once I got those rights back, once I got that letter stating that I could vote, I made it my duty to be here.”
Voting rights restoration has become a political issue in Virginia
“That letter” has become a hot topic in the governor’s race.
Virginia has one of the country’s harshest laws on restoring voting rights: It’s one of four states where anyone convicted of a felony is automatically barred from voting for the rest of his or her life. According to estimates from The Sentencing Project, 7.8 percent of voting-age Virginians were disenfranchised in 2016 because of their records — including 21.9 percent of all African Americans in the state.
The former Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, was concerned enough about this to ask Virginia’s Republican legislature to loosen the law — but the legislature couldn’t agree on a bill. McDonnell’s Democratic successor, current Gov. McAuliffe, was (unsurprisingly) no more successful with the legislature.
McAuliffe took another tack: He signed an executive order immediately reenfranchising 200,000 Virginians who had committed felonies but had completed parole. The state Supreme Court (siding with a lawsuit brought by the legislature) struck down the executive order, saying that McAuliffe couldn’t just categorically restore rights the law had denied to a whole group of people at once — he had to use his gubernatorial power to restore rights individually.
So that’s just what he did. Starting in August 2016, McAuliffe has sent letters to individual Virginians letting them know their voting rights have been restored. The letters have now gone out to 168,000 people.
McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor Ralph Northam (who’s also the Democratic nominee to replace him) and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie both broadly support reforming Virginia’s voting-restoration laws; Gillespie has proposed some sort of commission that would standardize the process for restoring the rights of people in the future, so it wouldn’t be up to the whims of an individual governor.
But that hasn’t stopped Gillespie from running an ad attacking Northam for supporting “the automatic restoration of rights for unrepentant, unreformed, violent criminals.”
It’s one of many ads in Gillespie’s campaign that’s tried to agitate Trumpian anxieties about “law and order” and cultural change — and has been criticized for tapping into racism. The villain of the Gillespie ad on rights restoration may be white, but the people whose voting rights were revoked, and are now being restored, are disproportionately African American.
Of course, people with criminal records are used to being demonized in campaign ads. But this time, they can actually have a voice in the election where they’re being used as props. They have a say in determining whether such attacks are considered okay in the future or not — and how many of their still-disenfranchised counterparts will be able to have a say the next time Election Day rolls around.