“I don’t care how long the lines are”: How a felon feels about voting for the first time in 30 years

There might not be a first-time-voter in the country more excited to cast a ballot than Kenneth Williams.

“I don’t care how long the lines are,” the 67-year-old says. “I am not sure how I hold up emotionally, but I am going to be there.”

Williams spent a decade in prison on two robbery charges, starting when he was 21. The owner of a successful construction business, Williams was released nearly 30 years ago and lives with his family in Richmond, Virginia. But because of his convictions, he was never allowed to vote. Until now.

Governor Terry McAuliffe has been restoring voting rights to 200,000 eligible felons on a case-by-case basis, accomplishing what the Virginia supreme court barred him from doing with an executive order earlier this year after Republicans sued. Williams is one of them.

Virginia is one of 12 states that doesn’t afford automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights to ex-convicts. It is also one of only four states where felons are slapped with lifetime voting bans that only the governor can overturn.

These voting laws are rooted in Virginia’s Jim Crow past. One of the state constitution’s framers was explicit: laws limiting voting–including the disenfranchisement of felons–were tools to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state.” In 1971 the constitution was rewritten, but felon disenfranchisement remained.

“I should have my rights back, because I am one of thousands that made a mistake and paid the consequences for it. To say that I am not allowed to vote because of what I have done 30 years,” Williams says, “That’s just unfair.”

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