Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Ex Factor: US prisoners and ex-prisoners voting rights

Prison-reform groups work to educate former felons on their voting rights.

The red-faced man slows his shopping cart of empty beer cans and stares in disbelief at the white form just thrust into his hand.

“I can’t,” he mutters, shaking a head of unkempt, yellowish hair.

“They told me I can’t.”

Caylor Roling, a tall, bespectacled young woman, who chased down her new friend through a crowded Food 4 Less parking lot, shakes her head back.

“That’s not true,” she almost shouts. “In Oregon, even if you have a past felony conviction, you can!”

Roling—an organizer with the Western Prison Project (WPP), a prison reform group in the midst of a voter registration drive aimed at convicted felons—smiles as the man trots away, curiously eyeing the registration form she’s handed him.

Since the 2000 election, a wellspring of attention has focused on felony disenfranchisement. Currently, nearly 4 million Americans cannot vote because they’re incarcerated or live in a state that strips felons of their voting rights even after they’ve been released, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based prison reform organization.

But what of the millions of felons in the United States who can vote? Aside from Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia, which allow all residents to vote even if they’re locked up, 34 states let felons go to the polls at some point after their release. According to experts, however, the majority of these ex-felons probably don’t, thanks to complex suffrage laws that differ by state, coupled with a dearth of information about those laws.

In New York, for example, parolees can’t vote but those on probation can; in Oregon anyone can vote once they’re out of prison; and in Washington, only ex-felons convicted after 1984 can vote, and they have to complete parole, probation and pay any outstanding fines first.

Ex-felons oftentimes have no idea that they’ve been re-enfranchised, and when they do try and vote, clueless election officials in some cases have refused to let them.

This election year, no one’s taking any chances. Prison reform groups like WPP, along with voting rights organizations, are working in unprecedented numbers across the country to educate and register ex-felons and to ensure that election officials get it right. Particularly in swing states like Oregon that grant unconditional suffrage to ex-felons—Al Gore squeezed out a victory here by just 6,700 votes in 2000—the effort conceivably could impact the election.

Christopher Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, says there are probably close to 9 million ex-felons in the United States. “Many are still unaware that their rights have been restored or are hesitant to vote because they would not like to risk being turned away at the polls,” he told In These Times.

While it’s difficult to predict the voting patterns of a population that hasn’t yet flexed its political muscle, Uggen estimates that, based on sex, age, race, marital status and income, some 70 percent to 80 percent of all ex-felons (and felons) in the United States would vote Democratic. This is in large part because a tremendous percentage of those who are or have been incarcerated are black, 90 percent of African American voters cast their ballots for Gore in 2000.

WPP’s campaign, called the VOICE Project, is focusing on Oregon, Montana, Utah and Nevada. Since 2002, organizers have been registering voters at halfway houses, canvassing areas identified as having a high percentage of ex-felons, and disseminating information through probation and parole officers—not to mention calling elections and corrections officials to make sure they don’t screw it all up.

In Oregon alone, WPP Executive Director Brigette Sarabi says there are about 30,000 men and women on parole, probation or under some sort of post-release supervision, and thousands more with felony convictions, most of whom have no idea they can vote.

“Felons are always told what they can’t do when they leave prison,” says Cassandra Villanueva, an organizer for WPP. “But they’ve never been told what they can do.”

According to Jessie Allen, associate counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, often there’s also “ignorance and stereotyping” on the part of election officials when ex-felons try to vote. In 2002, the Brennan Center discovered that during local elections in New York about half of the county election boards were asking ex-felons to present fictitious documents proving they’d completed their sentences. According to Allen, lawyers from Brennan met with state election officials in an effort to inform them of their own rules.

Two years later, Allen says she’s concerned that some election officials in New York and elsewhere across the country are still in the dark.

“It’s safe to say that many election officials still don’t know the rules of the states where they work,” Allen notes. “People are very confused right now.”

Late last year, Connections, a Montana prison reform group that’s participating in WPP’s registration drive, sent surveys to 10 county election officials and 10 parole and probation officers, asking whether ex-felons in the state of Montana are allowed to vote.

The majority answered that ex-felons couldn’t—a stupefying revelation, considering that for the past 34 years state law has granted suffrage to all convicted felons from the day they’re released.

“They failed miserably,” says Casey Rudd, Connections’ executive director. According to Rudd, 385 ex-felons also were surveyed, and the overwhelming majority was convinced they’d lost their voting rights as well.

Disturbed by the results, Connections has met with local corrections officials, doled out information to those who’d botched their survey and dived headfirst into WPP’s campaign.

On a recent trip to two transitional houses in Salem, Oregon, in the shadows of the state’s capital building, Villanueva and Roling registered six young women fresh out of prison or drug treatment centers in a matter of minutes. One, 27-year-old Misty Frank on probation from a felony narcotics possession charge, had never registered before. She was both shocked and enthused that she could.

Says Sarabi: “Once you’ve taken their rights away, it’s amazing how many ex-felons want to exercise them.”

By Dan Frosch

Reader Comments:

Unfortunately, Dan Frosh did not mention the state with the most severe restrictions on felon’s voting rights,Florida,where the President’s brother, Jeb Bush, reigns as Governor. The thousands uppon thousands of ex- felons, mostly black and Democrat-leaning, would have ensured Gore’s election if they were allowed to go to the polls. Florida’s ex-felons are barred from voting FOR LIFE, unless they have their civil rights restored in a complex and rarely successful process. I’m amazed that Kerry’s advisors have not more strongly stressed this issue; “ Taxation without Representation” and a ‘pseudo-Democracy’ where a percentage of its citizens are disenfranchised on undefined and problematical grounds.

Posted by Art Candell on August 11, 2004 at 5:44 AM

Why not post rules about voting for felons state by state with phone numbers of those in charge. let that be the beginning of a bible.

Posted by francine haselkorn on August 11, 2004 at 10:04 AM

Florida used to be know as the State of sunshine, orange groves, pelicans, and sandy beaches. I loved it and lived in Florida for several years. But, no more is it a respected state. When I think of Florida now, I immediately think of it as the most corrupt state in the Union, and all because of the Bush Governor and the corrupt Bush family influence. How could this have happened in this country? It is such a sad time for our country because of the Bushies and their corporate greed for even more power and influence and their smear campaigns against anyone who should so dare try and defeat Dubba and put an end to at least some of his policies.

After all, he’s not near through lining his and his GOP corporate friends’ pockets. Dubba has so far successfully gotten away with pushing his agenda for his GOP taking over this country that who is to think that a problem of ex-felons’ restoration of voting rights can be solved in Florida, especially. It will only be more subversive this November.

Posted by BN Rodgers on August 11, 2004 at 10:06 AM

Why would we want felons to vote? Is it really a great thing to be the party of felons?

Posted by ken on August 11, 2004 at 10:37 AM

Can you follow up by listing what states allow and which do not? That’s important information, I think! Especially since people will likely have a hard time finding out the truth from their governments. Valerie

Posted by Valerie on August 11, 2004 at 11:15AM

Felons are still citizens. If you don’t want them to vote, why still accept their taxes?

Posted by Cho on August 11, 2004 at 11:20 AM

I wrote the first comment this morning re: Dan Frosch’s piece. Regarding some responses. 1. 4.9 million Anmericans are disenfranchised from voting due to felony convictions. Amazingly, ONE IN EVERY FIFTY AMERICANS!!!

2. 14 states bar felons from EVER voting again.

3. Among these, activists are attempting to overturn this in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Nevada and Virginia ( Obviously a hopeless task if the Republicans continue in power). A bill was introduced in Congress to allow freed felons to vote in federal elections. It was being sponsored in the house ( The Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act of 1999, H.R.906) by Rep. John Conyers, D. Mich, and in the Senate by Sen. Harry Reid, D. Nev. (S.2666) I don’t know results.

Posted by Art Candell on August 11, 2004 at 12:09 PM

Dan Frosch; Below you will find the copy of the letter I sent to Ken questioning a felons right to vote.

I enjoyed your article and there sould be more and more educating of prisoners as to what their rights are as well as those who are expected to protect these rights. All too often a man or woman will spend years behind bars and suddenly find themselves once again in the free world with absolutely no idea what rights they have or what they can expect.

If they are going to lock a person up and take their rights and privileges then it is no more than right that they also upon their release explain to them what they can expect. Thank you for a very informative article. Ken;

I do not know what your education is in regards to people ending up in prison and surrendering all their rights. Evidently you do not know just how very easy it is for someone to end up behind bars and evidently you have not been following the news and are aware of how many people have been released from Death Row after they have been found innocent.

Once a person leaves prison he or she is expected to live a law abiding and tax paying life. If you do not have the right to vote, why then, should you be expected to pay taxes. Hopefully you will never find yourself in that situation, I could not wish it upon my worst enemy. Greybeard

Posted by Greybeard on August 11, 2004 at 12:10 PM

I’m an ex-felon, college graduate, father of three 20-somethings one of which is a firefighter, one is a scholarship student at SOSU, and one is a bike mechanic/ski & board tech at a local shop and a sponsored snowboarder. I’ve been a business owner for the last 13 years and PAYING those taxes, and a home owner and landlord and PAYING those taxes.

I read (unlike our current president) and stay informed on the issues. I support the Constitution and Bill of Rights, will disagree with both Dem and Rep on the issues, and have missed one election in my life due to my felony conviction (I was on probation at the time). I’ve paid my debt to society and to my victim. Ken, you don’t think I should be allowed to vote? I EXECT to be treated as an intelligent, educated man.

Remember, this country was founded by men who refused to be taxed WITHOUT representation. Don’t tax me, no income tax or property tax or even sales tax if I’m not allowed to vote. It’s plainly un-American and you wouldn’t want to be seen as that, would you?

Posted by seal on August 11, 2004 at 12:46 PM

Good article, but where’s the beef? What are the states that permit those that have paid their debt to society to vote?

Posted by John J Plair on August 11, 2004 at 1:14 PM

These are voices we have managed to silence. The one group that can be ‘controlled’. Being silenced has long been a tradition...denying suffrage to African-Americans and women, non-property holders, illiterates, etc.

Public outrage changed that. Without discussing the crimes and circumstances, and denying the vote, again some are silenced. This is not democracy. And now in the age of the Patriot Act, the number of disfranchised is increasing.

Posted by mari on August 11, 2004 at 1:41 PM Seal -

I have no objection to you voting. I would favor felons being allowed to vote after they paid they debt to society and their victims. I would prefer that they had to reapply for the vote, rather than getting it automatically (but this is just a preference). I would not work to make this happen, but i would not oppose it.

And if i were a political party, i would not want to be the party of felons (but anyway, i am an independent who flirts with pragmatic Libertarianism). Greybeard - i don’t think you can wake up one morning and just become a felon. I think you have to do something seriously wrong first. My apologies to the very few (percentage wise anyway) wrongly convicted men and women out there).

Posted by ken on August 11, 2004 at 1:48 PM

To those who are asking which states allow/don’t allow felons to vote and other interesting details regarding this hot button issue, go to GOOGLE and type in > felons voting <. many interesting websites and commentary appertaining.  

Posted by Art on August 11, 2004 at 1:50 PM

Good article. I’ve always had a problem with this being a jury-rigged democracy in the first place. Even if we can vote our choice is no choice. The real power in this country is with those who have the power to appoint and I wasn’t suprised to see Kerry come out of nowhere against all odds to become the person to continue the Bush wars once Bush can’t possibly win.

Its as if the fix is in. Voters are disenfranchised so bad, in so many ways and even if that doesn’t work the rich and powerful just step in and decide our elections for us instead of counting our votes. Now our voting machines are a wizard of Oz sham with no audit trail or means of re- counting. No wonder our foreign policy pays only lip service to the idea of democracy, while propping up dictators who keep their people in line. We obviously would be a completely different nation if we ourselves were actually a democracy. Let’s tear the lid off this can of worms.

Posted by Davol on August 11, 2004 at 1:59 PM

Here is the link:

Posted by Billy on August 12, 2004 at 3:02 AM

I have a friend who has been in prison for the 12 years that I have known him, and yes, Ken, he did something very wrong. During his time in, he has held a job as a lay advocate, helping other inmates, [prisoners], navigate the prison system’s regulations and “forms in triplicate.”

When he is released next year, he will be 40 years old. He has never used a computer, he has never used a cell phone, he will have to fight to prove himself to a college, to an employer, and to a landlord.

On the other hand, he will have served his full sentence, assigned to him through due process, by a representative of the people. That means that he’s already proven himself to the government. He doesn’t need to, “reapply to vote,” because he has done his time and paid his dues.

Do I care who he votes for after that? Not really; it’s not my business. But you can bet that not only will I be meeting him at the door of that prison when he’s released, I’ll be there with a coffee maker for his new apartment, and whatever information he needs to re-register as a voter.

As an independent, I think that both parties have missed the opportunity of gaining these voters for their side. Libertarians might not want to be seen as the Party of Felons, but then don’t cry when those released, re-registered ex-cons vote for someone who did demonstrate some care about their circumstances.

That’s what this is all about, after all: bringing those who have been disenfranchised back into mainstream life. Because if don’t start making some efforts to do so, we’re going to see record recidivism rates to go along with our record rates of incarceration.

Posted by Mel on August 12, 2004 at 7:20 AM

The correct web address is:

Posted by Margaret on August 12, 2004 at 8:17AM

Actually a better analysis and article than Frosch’s with more detailed salient points on the disenfranchisment of felons can be found at the below website. Check it out. n_Disenfranchisement.html

Posted by Art on August 12, 2004 at 8:54 AM

Mel - You are to be commended for being a good friend. I hope your buddy can take his life and turn it around to be something that is productive and allows him to be happy. I am a strong believer in the principle of people helping other people, one person at a time.

Davol - while i admit that the system has its flaws, i subscribe to the old adage: “it is the worst system there is, except all the rest”. That said, i also see too little difference between Kerry and Bush.

Posted by ken on August 12, 2004 at 9:11 AM

Ken: You wrote: “That said, I also see too little difference between Kerry and Bush.” Kinda seems to me that one of them is insane, deceitful, and self-serving... don’t those make difference enough?

To be sure, policy-wise they are quite similar on a few issues although there is a difference of degree. There are other issues however where they are quite far apart. And of course the Dem party strategists seem keen to bend over backwards to reassure business that they pose no threat to them, and to appeal to the conservative element of the undecideds. I remain unconvinced that this strategy will actually work though... doesn’t seem to be working with you, does it?

Anyhow, keep on with the challenging posts, Ken. There are many like- minded people in America today, and we liberals sure need the debating practice.

Posted by kenmo on August 12, 2004 at 6:32 PM

Ken, The right to vote is not yours, or anyone elses, to give or take away. No more than the right to life and freedom. You, and the rest of the republican party, are all mentally ill in my opinion. Democracy is not, never has been, and never will be a luxury to be denied to people who you disapprove of.

Why stop with ex convicts? Why not repeal the vote for women and blacks. They are after all genetically inferior to white men aren’t they? Come on, show your true colors, you and I both know this is what you secretly believe. I have heard you respond to other articles on this site by describing yourself as having “good genes”.

Also, to say that you can see little difference between Kerry and Bush is basically a vote for Bush. If elected in November GEORGE BUSH WILL START MORE WARS! Kerry, and this would be obvious to a bright child, has nothing like the same agenda. The lesser of two evils is always the LESSER of two evils. Please, see a doctor.

Posted by Matilda on August 14, 2004 at 2:08 AM

Hey! We’re wandering far afield from the original subject! Don’t worry about Ken. If he subscribes to IN THESE TIMES, he’s a closet Democrat who likes to stir up hot button issues. So, to continue on another hot button subject: Why is MOTHER JONES so successful in filling up its copies with lucrative advertising and IN THESE TIMES only attracting a few inelegant, inartistic, advertisers?

Posted by Art on August 14, 2004 at 6:20 AM

Why *shouldn’t* felons vote? Why should they be punished in that particular way, a way that makes this country less of a democracy? A lot of people seem to assume that there is some compelling reason for them not to vote, but I can’t think of one. Even a serial murderer may care about education and have good ideas about tax laws.

In some states all U.S. citizens *can* vote, even people in prison. Can most people name those states offhand (presumably because of their horrible state and local governments)? Of course not. Prisoners are human beings and should be treated as such. Besides, the real felons, the *big-time* thiefs and mass murderers, and those who rig and steal elections, will never be prosecuted. Instead many of them are appointed to judge or govern others. Glitz 

Posted by Glitz on August 16, 2004 at 2:39 PM

Related World Prisoner Voting Links:

Prisoners must get right to vote, says court

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Fighting for Florida: Disenfranchised Florida Felons Struggle to Regain Their Rights US: TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Jeb Bush looked out over a roomful of felons appealing to him for something they had lost, and tried to reassure them.

Felons and the Right to Vote One of the greatest achievements of the civil rights struggle was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed most of the obstacles that kept African Americans away from the ballot box and enabled Americans who did not speak English to vote. But the voting rights movement never reached the last excluded segment of our democracy: our prisoners. 

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Study Warns of Rising Tide of Released Prisoners
Washington: More than 625,000 former prisoners will be coming back into U.S. society this year, part of a record flow of prisoners who will face crushing obstacles in finding work and housing and repairing long-fractured family ties, according to a newly released study.

Incite Statement Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex
We call social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state AND interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women.

Second International Conference on Human Rights & Prison Reform
**This second gathering will be much smaller and more in depth in participation. A report on the human rights violation of discrimination in regard to prisoners will be produced. This report will be given to the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights which will be having its annual meeting near our conference and is the"think tank" for the human rights agenda of the United Nations.

Judged Forever- The Orange County Register
US: California's largest job-placement program for parolees will be shut down May 31 after an Orange County Register investigation found that ex-convicts were sent to questionable jobs [?] and that the state was charged for placements that did not occur. [? According to the ruling-class]

California Family Visiting Case
US: CALIFORNIA: Today (5/03/08) in Superior Court around twenty friends and family members of inmates from CSP Solano showed up to show their support in the Gordon vs. CA Department of Corrections (Case #322862) which deals with the subject of bringing back Family Visits to all inmates.

Prison Rates Among Blacks Reach a Peak, Report Finds
An estimated 12 percent of African-American men ages 20 to 34 are in jail or prison, according to a report released yesterday by the Justice Department.

Justices question prison visitation policies
WASHINGTON: In a case that could affect the visitation rights of millions of prisoners, Supreme Court justices on Wednesday struggled with the question of whether inmates have a constitutional right to visits with friends and family.