For DeShon Langston, having his right to vote restored—and then unrestored—was like having a really nice dream and waking up to reality. That’s his reaction to a 4-3 Supreme Court of Virginia decision July 22 that the state constitution did not give Governor Terry McAuliffe the authority to restore voting rights en masse, as he did April 22 for more than 200,000 felons.
By July 29, the Virginia Department of Elections had placed all of those names back on the prohibited voter list. This week, people like Langston, who had registered to vote, will get letters advising them their registration has been canceled.
When he got out of prison in 2005 for drug distribution charges, Langston, 41, returned to his home state of Michigan, where felon voting rights are restored automatically upon release from prison. “The first time I ever voted was in 2008 in Michigan for Barack Obama,” he says. “I was on probation.”
But he returned to Virginia, which doesn’t make it so easy and requires felons to petition the governor to get their voting rights back. Encouraged by Virginia Organizing’s Harold Folley, Langston previously tried to get his voting rights restored online, but was told he’d need to provide more information. “I’ve got a wife, two young kids, two jobs,” he says. “I got other things on my mind.”
When McAuliffe signed his blanket restoration, “it felt like a step up for the future, where I can participate in my local government,” says Langston.
He wonders about the GOP-led opposition to him voting. “Is that how Virginia really feels about felons working to get their lives together?” he asks. And he’s convinced the restrictions on felon voting are racially motivated because the majority of felons are African-American. “Whatever their motivation is, it’s not benefiting me,” he says.
Curtis Gilmore Jr., 55, felt like he earned having his rights restored. He, too, was convicted of drug charges and has been out of prison since December 22, 2009. Gilmore works at Blue Moon Diner and is trying to be a productive citizen, and “not feel like I’m second class,” he says.
Now he wants to live a more conventional life, where before, “I always lived in the dark world—a life that could get you killed or get you locked up,” he says. He has seven grown children. “None of them turned out like me, thank God,” he says, putting his hands together in a prayer gesture.
It took Gilmore more than five years to pay $5,000 in fines so he could get his driver’s license back.
“I’m being restored,” he says. “Getting my rights back is one of the things I have to do. I was excited about getting to vote,” although he says he wasn’t disappointed when he heard the court had reversed the governor’s measure. “I know how politics work,” he says.
Delegate Rob Bell, a Republican who is running for attorney general, says it’s no secret he was one of those who challenged McAuliffe’s order and who helped expose those who were ineligible on the restoration list.
“We had policy concerns about treating everyone the same, and we had constitutional concerns,” he says. Under McAuliffe’s order, “there will be some very bad characters who qualify,” he says.
Bell, a former Orange County prosecutor, interviewed lawyers to take the case and checked in with other commonwealth’s attorneys. Jim Fisher in Fauquier County ran the names of a few people he knew wouldn’t qualify, and found a guy serving a life sentence, says Bell. He reached out to other prosecutors who checked high-profile cases and “the dam broke.”
One found a sex offender who was a fugitive noncitizen who had his rights restored. Another discovered 132 sex offenders who were civilly committed. “It got worse and worse,” says Bell. “It underlined the benefits of [restoring voting rights] case by case.”
Bell insists his opposition to McAuliffe’s order is not to disenfranchise black voters, and he points to a PolitiFacts investigation that says Virginia’s ban on felons voting is not a Jim Crow-era law. It notes the ban on felons dates to 1830, when only white men were given the right to vote.
Bell says he doesn’t object to felons getting their voting rights back, but he doesn’t want it an automatic process. “If someone turns their life around, everyone is delighted,” he says. “When people approach and ask me about this, I always ask if they’ve applied. For nonviolent felons, it’s not this big application.”
On August 4, registrars in Charlottesville, which had 86 felons who registered to vote, and in Albemarle, which had 82, received lists of names of those who had been unregistered.
McAuliffe has vowed he will sign letters restoring rights to the nearly 13,000 felons who registered to vote under his executive order.
Both Langston and Gilmore say they’ll register to vote if their rights are restored again. Langston is more interested in participating in local and state elections, which affect his family. “That’s what I care about,” he says,
And Gilmore wants to not be seen as a second-class citizen. “If I can vote my one vote, I can make a difference,” he says. “And I can talk about politics.”