News & Politics

Roadmap of a Progressive Victory

Why a humble campaign for felon voting rights in Rhode Island ended up being a tremendous win for all progressives.
In the heaps of victories that progressives joyously celebrated after Election Day, Nov. 7, one has passed remarkably unnoticed. It involves a ballot measure and a grassroots battle for civil rights, but has nothing to do with same-sex marriage or abortion rights -- those typical headline-grabbers.

What you may not have heard is that the people of Rhode Island voted to grant ex-felons the right to vote from the very moment they leave a prison's gates. And in doing so they expanded the civil rights of a demonized class -- rights, it's fair to say, that many voters hardly knew were missing in the first place.

That victory was not just important in the long battle for fair and just voting rights in this country. It's also a case study in "impossible" social action. Understanding how Rhode Island activists managed to make social justice a reality is instructive for anyone working for progressive change.

"Civil death" today

Does "felon" bring to mind only rapists and murders and perhaps drug dealers? It shouldn't, really. In many U.S. states, a felon is anyone convicted of a crime where the sentence could be more than one year. In practice, those offenses include not only rape and murder, but perjury and bouncing a check. Yes, Martha Stewart is a felon, in the eyes of the law.

America has always had felony voting bans. But their popularity spiked in the Reconstruction-era South after the 15th Amendment gave blacks the right to vote. Felony voting restrictions were a seemingly "race neutral" tool, like the poll tax, that in practice kept many blacks from the ballot box. (Currently, 1.4 million African-American men cannot vote because of past felony convictions.)

Historically, the severity of felony disenfranchisement laws in America draw inspiration from the idea of "civil death," a medieval construct that punished criminality by excising the offender from the body politic.

Today, it's not surprising if you hear "felons and "voting" and your mind jumps to Florida. In Gore vs. Bush, you'll remember, that state attempted to erase ex-felons from their voting rolls. In the process, they robbed thousands of legitimate voters of their franchise.

However, voting bans aren't limited to the Deep South. And they are in no way uniform. Three U.S. states -- Florida, Virginia, and Kentucky -- disenfranchise every ex-felon for life. Many other states restore rights at the completion of parole (conditional release) and probation (supervised reentry). Kill someone in Maine, and you can vote from your prison cell. Sell marijuana in Virginia, and for all intents and purposes you're banned from the ballot box for life.

Legal-types call it the "crazy quilt" of voting law, a patchwork of statutes and provisions that differ from state to state. Take the situation in the Four Corners region of America's southwest as an example. In Salt Lake City, Joe Felon gets his voting rights back while walking out of the prison gates. In Denver, he has to wait until his parole term is up. In Santa Fe, he must bide time until his probation term expires, which could be years or even decades. And in Phoenix, he'll never vote again.

Making history in Rhode Island

In light of the fickleness of our antiquated voting laws, let's assume you're convinced that America's legacy of felony disenfranchisement is egregious. Unconscionable, even. Then it's tempting to see restoration movements as a great battle for democracy. But as history is so often less exciting lived than read about later, victory in Rhode Island began in a humble way.

Located in an aging four-story house in Providence's struggling south side, the Family Life Center (FLC) provides social services for ex-prisoners. It was early summer, 2004, and an intern at FLC named Nina Keough needed a project.

She began compiling data on Rhode Islanders ineligible to vote because of criminal convictions. "We didn't necessarily think that much would come" of the project, says Dan Schleifer, FLC outreach director. That some ex-felons couldn't vote in Rhode Island was mostly a "curiosity."

But it turned out that the resulting 12-page report, "Political Punishment: The Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement for Rhode Island Communities," was a gripping read. It found more than 15,000 Rhode Islanders banned from the ballot box. One in five black men couldn't vote, and neither could one in 11 Hispanic men. Four percent of adults in Providence were ineligible.

And the ban hit urban communities incredibly hard. Nearly 80 percent of those affected lived in cities, particularly Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, Newport and Woonsocket. Drilling down farther, the neighborhood of Upper South Providence lost almost 10 percent of its potential voters, 35 times the rate of disenfranchisement in the northeast Providence neighborhood of Blackstone.

Suddenly a "curiosity" looked like a harsh political reality.

Report in hand, FLC realized it was on to something and went national with it, to the three organizations -- NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, the ACLU and the Sentencing Project -- that have for years collaborated on a national Right to Vote campaign.

The national coalition suggested to FLC that it could increase the press pickup of the report by releasing it in conjunction with a similar paper that found 14 percent of Atlanta's black men were banned from the ballot box. FLC agreed, and the tactic worked. In late September 2004, "Political Punishment" was featured not only in the Providence Journal but also the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The group has just learned its first important lesson: to link its research with other similar work to reach a larger audience -- in doing so it not only increased public education, but got political attention as well.

After that, things began to snowball. Local lawmakers, as legislators do, jumped to capitalize on the hot news story their constituents might be reading. Hearings on Rhode Island's felony voting ban were called in the General Assembly. Initial polling found Rhode Islanders generally warm to the idea of increasing felony voting rights. Progressive groups joined FLC in the effort, laying the groundwork for a statewide Restore the Vote coalition.

As momentum began to build, advocates had to grapple with the fact that the ban was baked into Article II Section I of the Rhode Island Constitution. What seemed at first a setback soon looked a lot like an advantage. Legislators would have put the question on the ballot -- a constitutional amendment would live or die with voters on Election Day.

"Legislators weren't taking a huge political risk -- they weren't ratifying anything," Schleifer says. If change had required that lawmakers directly expand rights for criminals, ending civil death may well have been dead on arrival -- instead, it was up to the voters themselves. This proved the second important lesson.

As with any campaign, there are unexpected blessing, but also hurdles. It's fair to say that, looking back, the greatest obstacle in the path of Rhode Island's growing restoration movement wasn't the protestations of "tough on crime" conservatives or "lock 'em up" law enforcement. Instead, it was convoluted campaign finance laws.

As momentum built, a handful of national and local funders lined up to contribute to the Restore the Vote coalition. State law, however, restricted the work of foundations and nonprofits on ballot measures. What's more, it required parties working together on a ballot measure to form file as a PAC. Wrangling with campaign finance regulations was too complicated for tiny FLC, and the national campaign wasn't much help in deciphering the nuances of local law.

The law wasn't a clear restriction. But it was confusing enough to create a chilling effect. Local funders who had pledge contributions were wary of doing so with the law unclear. The national campaign was reluctant to dedicate funds to Rhode Island while the future there was murky. In the fall of 2005 the Restore the Vote coalition went into a holding pattern.

To be sure, FLC hadn't expected to become campaign finance reform advocates when it opened its doors in 2002. FLC had dedicated itself to helping ex-offenders navigate reentry into society during the critical period immediately after release. In some cases, the center was the first stop after prison for some, still clutching their prison-issued belongings.

"We were a new organization struggling to keep our doors open," says Sol Rodriguez, FLC's executive director. But FLC staff soon discovered that they couldn't do only hands-on service work and still meet their clients' needs. "It became clear that we needed to do policy work," says Schleifer.

It takes a (progressive) community

In the end, the pillars of Rhode Island's progressive community -- the state branches of Common Cause and the ACLU, as well as the Rhode Island Foundation -- won the needed change in the state's campaign finance laws. Those groups had been agitating for change in the courts for years, in particular as part of an effort to fund a campaign around Question 9, a $50 million bond measure on affordable housing. This was the third important lesson -- progressive issues are intertwined, and change involves working with allies to cut across issues.

The "Restore the Vote" campaign, of which all three organizations were coalition partners, brought new impetus. But as time passed and Election Day 2006 loomed on the horizon, judicial remedy looked like it would come too late. The progressive big guns, now joined by FLC, began pursuing a legislative strategy.

They worked with Board of Elections officials to craft a new statute that would free their hands. Meanwhile, there was action in the courts -- in May, a judge struck down the provision restricting the advocacy work by foundations and nonprofits. The General Assembly, spurred by the judge's ruling, did away with the provision that required that coalition partners organize as a PAC.

With the campaign finance question settled in late summer, funding flowed in. Restore the Vote switched gears from barely sustaining a general-education coalition to ramping up what amounted to a traditional, albeit low-budget, political campaign. (In the end, the entire campaign would end up costing in the neighborhood of $300,000.)

But here again was a challenge. By the time that the campaign finance law was settled in August, Election Day was just two months away. Rhode Island's experienced political talent had been snatched up earlier in the cycle by gubernatorial campaigns or had gone to work in the high-profile Chafee vs. Whitehouse Senate race. Out of necessity, Rodriguez eventually ended up directing the campaign. And, "out of ignorance," Schleifer jokes, he became the campaign's de facto field director.

What's more, there was a new idea in the air about how much issue campaigns should pay. "Restore the Vote" was Question 2 on the November ballot; Question 1 was a gambling provision, supported by the Narragansett Indian Tribe and funded by the very deep pockets of the Harrah's gaming corporation. Ocean state organizers could bag a bigger paycheck working to pass Question 1 than they could do the same on Question 2.

"We had limited resources," says Rodriguez. And with Election Day now just over the horizon, even less time. "We really tried to figure out ways to use our resources creatively." The coalition learned how to direct its resources in the most efficient way. It made the cost-cutting decision not to spend much money at all on paid advertising. Building support for extending rights to voters required some convincing of voters, and, says Rodriguez, "It's really difficult to persuade people through purchased media."

Instead, says Rodriguez, the coalition decided to focus its efforts on Rhode Islanders already inclined to be sympathetic on the issue, who with a little education could form an active base of supporters. Many of them knew someone who couldn't vote themselves, says Rodriguez. It was an approach not without risks. The coalition was hitching its wagon to voters who hadn't always turned out on Election Day.

Schleifer began to build a corps of volunteers who could both win over voters and make sure they turned out to vote. As it turned out, some Restore the Vote volunteers were themselves disenfranchised or had loved ones who were. But much of that corps was drawn from the student bodies of Rhode Island College and Brown. Says Schleifer, "We wouldn't have won without those students" -- another important lesson.

Their field strategy assumed that votes would break even in the suburbs, and so they scaled back from a campaign that would cover the whole 1,545-square-mile state and instead focused their energies and attention on the cities of Providence, Pawtucket, Newport and Woonsocket. Frankly, it was a strategy borne of necessity -- they just didn't have the cash to pay canvassers to work the suburbs.

But the campaign's shallow pockets may have been a blessing, the concentration of the campaign was one reason opposition was scattered and dispirited while support ran high among state leaders. The arguments against felon enfranchisement were largely limited to the idea that voting bans were reasonable punitive responses to very serious crimes. (According to one such sentiment, voiced by a few state senators, "When you kill someone, you take away all their rights forever.") But that thinking never seemed to gain traction.

In a drive to get endorsements, the coalition's steering committee members worked their personal relationships -- a key strategy. "Rhode Island is a unique place, with no degree of separation," says Rodriguez, and "once we got one mayor, we got another." In an op-ed in the Providence Journal weeks before Election Day, the Providence chief of police wrote that "restoring voting rights ... would strengthen our democracy and enhance public safety." Schleifer admits that the chief "got a lot of shit from conservative talk radio and the rank-and-file," but that his support "gave some people a level of comfort."

The final countdown

Days and weeks ticked by, endorsements mounted up, pavement was pounded, doors were knocked, and urban voters were hammered with the "Vote Yes on Question 2" message. At the very end, the coalition scraped together a bit of money and more than a hundred committed volunteers, many of whom had been campaigning without pay for months now, were made paid campaign staff for the final four-day push.

Now all that was needed was a place to headquarter all those warm bodies. An apartment was rented in Pawtucket, hotel rooms booked in Newport and Woonsocket. Schleifer's house in the west side of Providence was commandeered, as was a student volunteer's house on the east side of town.

Erica Sagrans, an AmericaCorp fellow at FLC who was active on the campaign, said that in one case, rental papers for an apartment weren't signed until Friday, Nov. 3, just hours before student volunteers were due to arrive. She and Schleifer, Sagrans says, spent the night hauling chairs into the apartment and hanging signs in the hallways, letting the neighbors know that a bunch of people would be tramping in and out of their building in the next four days.

Election Day came. In the end, the cities turned out big. Question 2 won, 51 percent to 49 percent by the final count. (In the end, Harrah's and the Narragansett Indian Tribe lost on Question 1 in a 63 percent to 37 percent drubbing. The final cost of that campaign -- $14 million.) Restore the Vote proved that money matters -- not how much you have, but how well you spend it.

Looking back, from an intern's summer project to reform of the state's campaign finance laws to the guidance of national organizations to the focused strategy borne of the campaign's shoestring budget, everything seemed to fall in place when it needed to. "It was absolutely a perfect storm," said Rodriguez.

What it all means

The expansion of voting rights in Rhode Island was a big concrete victory for voting rights activists, in that state and nationwide. But felony disenfranchisement doesn't exist in a bubble. It should be understood in the larger context of American civic life. It's "part and parcel of the way that we do democracy in this country," says Ana Muñoz, field coordinator at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Digging into these issues, you strike at the fiber of American civics, where discussions over having to show a driver's license at the voting station spiral into a complex conversations on immigration and harkens back to the days of the poll tax.

But the Rhode Island victory is also an instructive win for the progressive community. FLC admits it more or less made things up as it went along, charting new ground for the organization. It succeeded because of its willingness to reach out to other forward-thinking organizations to develop alliances, its scrappy and creative use of resources, and its skill at exploiting every opportunity for public education.

Thanks also to its own efforts of strategic voter mobilization, and likely thanks to the other issue groups and Democratic campaigns that worked to move progressive voters to the polls on Nov. 7, in the end, FLC walked away with a majority of the vote and a change in law.

"Every civil rights change," says Muñoz, "seems impossible at the time." But of course, we can look at Rhode Island as one more of example of how nothing is impossible. The harder progressives work and the more we figure out how to work together, the more we can achieve the social change we want to see -- no matter how daunting the task might seem at first.
Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. Nancy has worked on Capitol Hill and on the pre-presidential campaign of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, and is currently a blogger at the political blog MyDD.
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