RICHMOND, Va. ― For most of his life, whenever Election Day came around, Bobby Lee was a little bit embarrassed.
Lee lost his right to vote decades ago because he was convicted of a felony and Virginia strips felons of their voting rights. When Election Day arrived and people around him talked about voting, Lee felt like a bit of an “outcast,” he said, a child who wasn’t allowed to make decisions for himself.
Lee had his voting rights restored in 2015 and voted in last year’s presidential election. On Tuesday’s Election Day, Lee, 62, cast a ballot again.
He’s one of more than 168,000 people whose voting rights have been restored by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Over 500,000 people in the state, including more than 1 in 5 African Americans, were disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, according to a 2016 estimate.
HuffPost went to the polls Tuesday with some of the ex-felons who had their rights restored. A few were voting for the first time in their lives.
Here’s what they had to say about casting a ballot:
Theodore Dortch, 37
“I got my rights restored back this year. I never voted before. How I feel: I’m a taxpayer, I go to work every day and it feels good to be some positive today. I said I pay taxes and I never got to vote. They ain’t go hand in hand. I pay the government, but they won’t let me vote. Today’s a special day for me.”
LaVaughn Williams, 55
“Just bubbling in those little bubbles gave me such a sense of power and excitement. I mean, I just can’t explain the feeling that I feel right now. I’m just so elated. I hope that my vote makes a difference. ... I never thought that I would be voting. I never thought I would be in this situation right now. If you had asked me two years ago, I would’ve said, ‘No, I will 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 and to put my little bubbles, and I have to emphasize those little bubbles, and cast my vote.”
Bobby Lee, 62
“This is an experience that we can pass on to someone that’s not aware they can receive their voting rights. They don’t have to feel left out that they can’t vote. I just feel equal to all other citizens.”
Tammie Hagen, 52
“I feel it’s important to get out here and cast my ballot, but also to be a support to other people who think that their vote doesn’t count. Their vote absolutely does count. It matters. We have got to keep plugging away at it because we cannot let our state go back to the old way. It has to keep progressing and we have to keep building out from restoration of rights to further empower people who are formerly incarcerated, communities of color, people in poverty. It’s just very important for us to keep this work up and to get out here and be active in our community and take back our lives.”
Wali R. Bahar, 66
“I know we’ve had people in our history to fight and to die for such a privilege. And I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. And I’m glad that they led the way, and I’m glad I’m able to take my place and do the right things.”
Brianna Ross, 53
“I remember way back in 1993 when the judge told me, ‘You can’t ever vote.’ I didn’t know what that meant. But it made me feel empty. It made me feel unimportant, but I voted today and it can happen for you.”