The old ex-con wakes in darkness. He can’t sleep. Not on this day.
He checks his watch – 2 a.m. Not yet.
He’s waited 57 years for this. He’ll have to wait a few more hours.
Nearly 80, Spellman Bernard Smith Jr. has stolen cars, robbed a drive-in at gunpoint, watched people get killed in prison, watched others OD and die. He’s spent nearly half his life behind bars, cycling in and out of cells for robbery, drugs, theft, violating his probation.
But he’s never done this. Not in all of his 78 years.
Fourteen times he might’ve voted; fourteen times he couldn’t. Fourteen times he watched as millions of other Americans chose a president.
Fourteen times an outsider. Fourteen times a bystander to democracy.
It was the summer of 1957 when Smith robbed The South Drive-In on Campostella. He was 19. Workers were stacking money at the end of the night, which made things easier. He can’t remember how much he got away with.
He got caught and was convicted – felon.
That scarlet letter has dogged him for more than a half-century, whether in or out of prison. He hasn’t been able to run for elected office, serve on a jury, get a passport.
Then came Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Smith was one of the 13,000 felons who applied to have his rights restored after McAuliffe signed an executive order for more than 200,000. The state Supreme Court struck down the order in July, saying he couldn’t restore rights en masse, but had to do so individually.
So he did. For all 13,000, Smith included.
Now the Norfolk man with the white beard is in his bed on Election Day, unable to stay asleep. He nods off for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, but then wakes up.
Checks his watch. Not yet, not yet, not yet.
He gets up around 6:45. Listens to the blues radio station but finds himself humming the national anthem. When he goes to get ready in the bathroom, he blasts it.
Smith pins his political buttons to his chest – made them himself. He says goodbye to his old dog, Lucky. Puts on his red tennis shoes.
Time to go.
Smith – who goes by Bernard or “Sir Dog” – opens the door of the house his family’s owned for generations, off Chesapeake Boulevard. He limps over to the porch steps – bad knee. Because it’s tough to walk, he’s arranged to have a friend pick him up and take him the mile or so to his polling place: Rosemont Middle School.
He limps into the old auditorium, a cane in one hand, an American flag he bought at the nearby Wal-Mart in the other. He makes friends in line. He makes friends as other soon-to-be voters sit around. Smith is the kind of guy who can make friends at the DMV, an emergency room or a prison.
Booth No. 5 opens up, and Smith walks to it.
A poll worker shows him how to insert his electronic voting card. Then he presses the screen to choose who he wants to represent him as president and in Congress.
“Bam!” he says as he taps. “Bam!”
Then he votes for a constitutional amendment.
And another: “Bam!”
It’s all over in less than two minutes.
He walks away from the booth and starts to sing in a beautiful baritone, loud enough for voters in other booths and the 100-plus people waiting in the auditorium to hear his voice.
A poll worker stops him, afraid he might disturb other voters. He limps to the door with his cane and exits.
He goes down the path toward the parking lot, past people waiting in line. He raises his flag in the air and waves it.
“Yes! Say yes to democracy!”
Then he pauses.
“By God, I’m doing it.”
He pauses again. Longer this time. A tear gathers and then hangs fat under his right eye. He wipes it.
“I’ll cherish this day for the rest of my life.”
He limps to the car, his chest emblazoned with some new red letters.
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com
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