In their own words: Here’s how much voting rights matter to those who’ve lost them

Voters fill out their ballots at the Taylor Masonic Lodge in Scottsville, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

By Ladelle McWhorter

Virginia Organizing would like to respond to Graham Moomaw’s, “Virginia Democrats push to end constitutional rule stripping felons of voting rights,” in order to make sure readers hear the perspectives of people who have lost their right to vote, in addition to legislators and experts.

On Dec. 29, members met with Sen. Mamie Locke to talk about her constitutional amendment, SJ 272, which would stop the state from taking away people’s right to vote. Senator Locke said, “Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, and that right should not be subject to the whims of the government.” 

We agree.

Virginia Organizing’s State Governing Board and members support this amendment. Here’s what our members have to say in their own words on why voting rights matter. 

Duane Edwards, board member, Fredericksburg: “In 2006 I came home from the penitentiary. I wanted to come back to my community and help re-build it, to help make it better.  Back then, even after you were off probation you had to wait five years before you could apply to get your rights back. During that time, I didn’t just sit, I engaged and started learning about the political process. I started asking questions. ‘Why do things get stalled? Why does this neighborhood get their potholes filled and this neighborhood doesn’t?’ 

“Then I started talking to people and telling everyone that the sheriff, the prosecutors, those are all elected positions. Don’t just think about the president. We have to think about the local positions that have a direct effect on our quality of life: our school board, our county supervisors. These people have a direct effect on our local communities. 

“I applied and finally I got my rights back, and then I had my first chance to vote. The first election was for a Commonwealth’s Attorney that I thought was handing out more time than he should for certain crimes. I was talking to people in my community about that, and just reminding them that this is an elected position. He was voted out of office. So as soon as I got my rights back, I saw that my vote mattered, and not just my vote, but, more importantly, my voice mattered. I was actually able to see the democratic process flowing as it should.

And from members in other chapters:

• “I passionately support this amendment because l believe it is and always should be the right of each and every individual in Virginia to vote regardless of past behavior, convictions, or actions.” — Barbara Harris, board member, Franklin

• “At the age of 18, 24 years ago, I lost my rights. I want to feel like a citizen again in society. In the past, Black voices like mine were silenced, but what’s going on now is shining a light on what’s been done to people of color at the hands of those in power, and our voices won’t be silenced anymore.” — Nathaniel E. Hall, Richmond

• “I’m so thankful that my rights have been restored for a variety of reasons. I think probably the most important part of it for me is the sacrifices that others have made for us to be able to exercise our rights. You don’t really have a voice unless you exercise your rights. I don’t personally feel that anyone should be barred from the right to exercise their vote because when you put people in the position where they don’t feel like they belong, then you are creating opposition to what it is that you say you want: inclusiveness, togetherness, community, citizenship, belonging.” — Weldon “Prince” Bunn, Richmond

• “Gaining my rights back made me feel completed as an individual. I believe it’s everyone’s right and duty to vote, because we need to be able to have a say in what happens in this country.” — Terry White, Chesapeake

•”We’re sent in as kids having to grow up in prison. We have the same dreams and goals as everyone else. Who are ‘we’? We are returning citizens. We want to be contributing members to society. Most importantly, we want to vote.” — Jeff Bowen, Newport News

• “I believe that everybody should be able to vote, regardless of their positions in life, whether they’re incarcerated or not. The people we elect to sit in these offices, they affect our lives greatly. I once had my rights removed, and I wasn’t given the opportunity to vote for many years, and that kind of hurt me, but since I’ve gotten my rights back, I vote in everything because it’s important that I have a say in the things that affect me.” — Shawna Lawson, Newport News

Ladelle McWhorter is chairperson of Virginia Organizing, a nonprofit focused on challenging injustice.