When Sylvester Hall was convicted of buying $25 worth of cigarettes with another man’s bank check in 1978, he lost a year of his life to jail, his livelihood and his home. And the Virginia man lost another thing of value: the right to vote.
On Tuesday, the 79-year-old Hall cast a ballot in Falls Church, the first time since voting for Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Hall, who maintains his innocence and unsuccessfully appealed his conviction, is among about 67,000 felons whose voting rights have been restored in the past four months by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). The governor’s spokesman said 20,000 of those with newly restored rights had registered to vote.
McAuliffe said the move was to allow those who had already served time for their crimes to again participate in society as full citizens. He underscored that barring all felons from voting, a prohibition far broader than most states, particularly impacted black residents in the Commonwealth: nearly one in four could not vote because of a felony conviction.
Republicans challenged the move, calling it an overreach and sued to stop it. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in their favor, saying the governor did not have the authority to issue a blanket order to restore voting rights to 200,000 felons at once. Instead, McAuliffe did it individually, giving some 60,000 the right to vote.
Republicans have criticized the action, calling it a naked attempt to help Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton win the state. Republican nominee Donald Trump joined the chorus of opposition at a rally in Leesburg, Va. on Monday, saying the governor had restored the rights of felons “illegally.”
Hall, who is African American, tried to vote in 2008. He lined up at Bailey Community Center before sunrise that November morning eight years ago to vote for Barack Obama. He had not attempted to vote since he had been released from jail, but seeing an African American so close to the White House inspired him. But a poll worker turned him away, saying he was no longer on the rolls. His felony conviction, then three decades old, would keep him from voting.
“I was embarrassed,” Hall said. “People were asking ‘What’s wrong?’”
For Hall, losing his right to vote was another indignity heaped upon a pile of injustices, another price to pay for a crime he maintains he never committed. Hall said he has never recovered from the damage the conviction wrought on his life. When he was put away, he and his wife were eyeing a high-rise apartment, paid for by his union wages maintaining trucks at a local dairy.
But when he was released, they were forced to move into the unheated basement of the family home. Hall, who has remodeled the basement, still lives there more than three decades later.
After he was turned away from the polls in 2008, Hall began speaking openly about his criminal conviction. At Springdale Civic Association meetings, Hall introduced himself “Felony 3617.”
Civic association president Willy Coleman and his wife Margaret were moved to help Hall apply to have his rights restored. Willy Coleman has known Hall his entire life, and both belong to long-established African American families in Fairfax County. The Colemans assisted Hall with the paperwork and Margaret Coleman, a former intelligence analyst, said she personally called the state to ensure Hall would be eligible to vote.
On Tuesday, Hall’s trip to the polls at Bailey’s Community Center went differently. He was shuttled there by Willy Coleman in Coleman’s shiny black Mercedes, wearing track pants and clean white sneakers and clutching a disposable camera to capture the moment.
He would be greeted by his aunt, Elizabeth Hall, who worked the front desk. He would fill out his ballot, supporting Democrats down the ticket. He had missed his chance to vote for the first African American president, but he would get the chance instead to support the first woman to win a major party nomination.
Grinning ear-to-ear, he slipped behind the voting machine, his aunt cheering him in the background, fists in the air. The Colemans stood on either side of him to witness him feed the paper into the machine, a moment that was both mundane and weighted with meaning.
Willy Coleman promised to buy him a steak dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse to celebrate.
Then, a message flashed on the screen.
“Thank you for voting,” it read. “Your vote has been counted.”
As he left the community center’s auditorium, he struggled to put into words what he felt. It was as if a weight had been lifted, he said.
“It’s hard to describe,” Hall said. “It’s been beautiful.”