The Fight To Vote

Mike Suza looks like any other white, middle-class professional. Barrel-chested and well dressed, he walks with the aggressive purpose of a monied stockbroker. But Suza is a convicted felon. Although raised in a middle-class home in Rhode Island, a cocaine habit finally got the best of him and in 1995, when he was 28, he robbed the coffee shop where he was working. Now 36 and sober, he works construction and attends AA meetings. But he has a greater desire he's unable to satisfy: voting.

"I'd like to believe I have half a brain and can make a difference," says Suza. "But in terms of the political process, I'm like the living dead."

Suza is part of a growing demographic, one of more than 4 million disenfranchised felons or ex-felons. Only 26 percent of those barred from voting because of a felony conviction are in jail. The rest have reentered society, and many are employed and raising families. Some are on parole or probation; some have completed all their obligations, but are banned from the polls for life. Thirteen states strip a convicted felon of his voting rights for life.

Omari Steuben, 25, tells a not-unfamiliar story. Growing up poor and black, he sold drugs to get by. He got caught, went to jail, and now he's piecing together a new life. He works at the neighborhood recreation center, and has resisted the temptation to supplement that income by selling drugs. Does it bother him that he can't vote? He shakes his head: "I'm just concerned about survival."

For an ex-felon living in a poor neighborhood, survival can be a full-time job. But across the country, grassroots organizations and prison-tested ex-convicts are trying to ease that burden by helping ex-felons reclaim their political voice through the vote. A Harris Interactive Survey found that more than 80 percent of Americans believe that ex-felons should have their voting rights reinstated, and 62 percent support voting rights for parolees -- but trying to translate a passive American opinion into concrete legislative reform is not easy.

Without Representation

Malik Aziz was just trying to survive as a young black man in Philadelphia in 1988. In high school he was president of the black student union, and a two-sport athlete. But by his 30s, selling drugs had become his livelihood, until he got busted in a raid. In prison, he saw a steady stream of men losing their youth, and their right to vote. With still two years left on his sentence, Aziz started the Ex-Offender's Association, and when he was released in 1997, it grew into a powerful movement for ex-convict rehabilitation. He volunteered for Philadelphia mayoral candidate John Street's campaign, and when Street won, Aziz was given a job in the administration running a program called Safer Streets, Safer Communities.

At the time, Aziz still couldn't vote, since Pennsylvania didn't reinstate an ex-felon's voting rights until five years after finishing parole. "People were working, paying taxes, but they couldn't vote," Aziz says. "It was taxation without representation." He and several other ex-felons sued the state and won, and the five-year ban was struck down.

In 2003, when Street ran for reelection, Aziz created a new target voter group: ex-cons. Their tactics were simple. They sought out ex-offenders where they were most likely to congregate -- in halfway houses and on street corners -- and convinced them to register to vote. By Election Day, Aziz and his corps of 30 field workers registered 20,000 ex-offenders, and Street was reelected mayor.

Expanding The Debate

Dorsie Nunn and his Oakland, Calif.-based ex-felon advocacy organization, All Of Us Or None, take an aggressive approach to expanding the debate on felon disenfranchisement. He aims to create situations where ex-felons can speak directly to politicians and policymakers, rather than through the proxy of an expert or a commission.

When his organization is invited to attend a discussion of ex-felon related issues in Sacramento, the state capital, he encourages ex-felons and their families to go instead. "A lot of times, the lawyers, researchers and policy wonks don't want to talk to ex-offenders, they'd rather talk to a commission," says Nunn. "But it's like talking about slavery without talking to the slaves!"

Other organizations, such as the Mississippi-based Citizens for Quality Education, have to make allowances for a more conservative political climate. "I see some of the types of political actions out there in California," says executive director Ellen Reddy, "but if we tried to do that here in Mississippi, we'd all be thrown in jail."

Reddy's organization provides counseling and legal support to young students who get in trouble in order to "prevent the march from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse," as Reddy puts it. For behaving badly in school, Mississippi youth can be sent to boot camp-style juvenile rehabilitation centers, where the kids mix with hardened criminals, creating new classes of potential convicts before they are even of voting age. Reddy feels a special urgency to achieve reforms in Mississippi, for its conservative bent lends it a bellwether credibility that more progressive states lack. Says Reddy, "We need reforms here, cause as Mississippi goes, so goes the nation."

Where Are The Reforms?

A common question is whether ex-felons would vote if they could. Many don't vote before they go to jail, so why would they when they get out? Robin Templeton, executive director of the New York-based Right to Vote Campaign, conducted dozens of focus group interviews with inmates, and found there's reason to believe they would. "Prison is a politicizing experience in and of itself," Templeton says. "Some people find God and religion, others find politics."

Given that the majority of ex-cons are blacks and Latinos, populations that vote overwhelmingly Democratic, why doesn't the Democratic Party push legislation that would reduce some of the harshest restrictions on ex-felons' voting rights? Fear of reaffirming the Democratic Party's reputation as being soft on crime certainly limits enthusiasm. But many activists aren't interested in cajoling the Democratic Party into a round of political opportunism either. "As an ex-prisoner, I can't say the Democratic Party's been good to me," declares Dorsie Nunn, referring to former California governor Gray Davis' close ties to the prison guards union.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, believes felon disenfranchisement is best framed as a bipartisan issue of democracy. "At a time when there is such low voter turnout, we should be expanding the electorate, not excluding people," Mauer says. Although opinion polls show that Americans support the lifting of bans and harsh restrictions on ex-felon voters, the issue lacks the political will to move reforms forward swiftly and decisively.

As long as middle-class white guys with felony convictions like Mike Suza are the random anecdote, and black men from poor neighborhoods like Omari Steuben are the common face of the disenfranchised, reforms will be slow moving. For underpinning their stories is the same racism that convicts blacks at a higher rate than whites.

Perhaps no one understands this better than Ellen Reddy, who, in confronting the conservatism of Mississippi, faces a decidedly uphill battle. For Reddy, attempts at legal reforms are pointless unless they are accompanied by a grassroots campaign to win over the hearts and minds of the Mississippi public. Says Reddy, "It's not about changing a situation in particular; it's about changing the culture."

Dan Hoyle, 23, is a freelance journalist and playwright based in San Francisco and Chicago.

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