Locking Up New Voters
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 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 to 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 and herself an ex-felon who was unaware of her rights until she contacted the group. "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 pleased that she could.
Says Sarabi: "Once you've taken their rights away, it's amazing how many ex-felons want to exercise them."