Former felons head to the polls in Virginia with the future of rights restoration on the line

Christopher Rashad Green works as an election officer on Tuesday, just over a year after he got his rights restored. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA — Driving through the rain from his office to the polls on Tuesday, 66-year-old Wali Bahar couldn’t help but reflect on the significance of the occasion — and not just because he was being trailed by a small entourage of voting advocates and their cameras.

Bahar said that his mother, born a slave in 1912 in Clarksville, Virginia, never learned to read or write. She never voted, Bahar remembered, because she was never educated.

In 2016, after serving more than three decades in prison, Bahar regained his voting rights and cast his first ballot. This would be his second time voting.

“I’m not nervous like I was the first time,” Bahar said from the passenger seat. “I’m ready to cast my vote in there, that’s for sure… I’m taking my place in society. I feel like I’m in this fight that other people put forth and died for many years ago.”

Last year, Bahar was one of tens of thousands of former felons who benefited from Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) executive order restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions who completed their sentences. Though the state supreme court invalidated McAuliffe’s attempt to restore rights en masse, the governor decided to grant individual clemency to each person who qualified. Bahar was one of those people.

The precarious state of voting rights in Virginia was on Bahar and other former felons’ minds Tuesday as they cast a ballot for the next governor. Tens of thousands of former felons still have not had their rights restored, and the next governor will decide the fate of people coming out of the criminal justice system in the future. Democrat and current Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam has said he will continue McAuliffe’s effort to restore rights to everyone who has served their time. Republican Ed Gillespie first said he would appoint someone to study the issue and standardize the process, leaving his position up in the air. But recently he attacked Northam for his position, calling it “reckless.”

For that reason, Bahar said he would be voting for Northam. Heading into the polls, he said he would be quick because he had done his research and knew who he’d be supporting.

“This is just a small step right here,” Bahar said after casting his ballot and posing for photos with advocates from the nonprofit New Virginia Majority, which works to help former felons regain their rights and register to vote. “It feels great being a part of it… I didn’t think I would reach this point.”

Tammie Hagen, one of the advocates who regained her rights herself last year, congratulated Bahar as he left the polls.

“Tammie, you’re having too much fun,” Bahar laughed as she snapped photos of him.

“That’s right,” she responded. “We only get one of these days a year.”

Wali Bahar votes for the second time in his life. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Across town in Richmond’s Main Street Station, 57-year-old Christopher Rashad Green was at the polls where he would spend 15 hours on Tuesday.

Green was first incarcerated as a juvenile in the 1970s and was in and out of prison for decades. In 2010, he said he turned a corner and decided he was going to try to straighten out his life. He voted for the first time last November after McAuliffe restored his rights in August. This year, he decided to volunteer as an election officer, greeting people at the polling location in Richmond’s historic train station and handing out “I voted” stickers to the people streaming through.

“My story is one of redemption and atonement,” he said. “Doing the right thing and being of service.”

Green's name badge and "I voted" sticker. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Last month, Gillespie released a series of TV ads attacking Northam for supporting the restoration of rights for former felons. Green told ThinkProgress that those ads were filled with falsehoods.

“That’s politics,” he said. “That’s one of the things that kept me out. I was very cynical of the whole process.”

But through his work with New Virginia Majority, Green said he has learned the importance of not only voting but of being educated about politics. He has also been working to get his life back on the right track. He recently got his driver’s license back, got a part-time job with Virginia Commonwealth University, and plans to get a car soon.

“Ever since I got my rights back, it was confirmation that I was on the right path,” he said.

Next, Green hopes to continue his civic duty and become a notary public and potentially an elections chief at a polling place.

“If you get your rights back, that’s just one step,” he said. “Then you have to become engaged in the process. Once I got my rights back, it is a heavy responsibility because now I can’t fall back.”