Richmond, Va. — On a Tuesday afternoon in December, Richard Walker stood on the corner outside the city’s social services building and hollered.
“Hey! I’m helping people who’ve got a felony conviction like me get their rights back. You know anybody like that?”
Walker, 57, called out to office workers in suits, the women in line for cheap cell phones and the young man pushing a baby stroller down East Marshall Street.
Every few minutes he brought someone back to a card table where he patiently explained the forms they would need to fill out to have their right to vote restored after a felony conviction.
Walker soothed their worries: It’s OK if you have outstanding fines, it’s OK if it was a long time ago, it’s all OK.
For three hours, he moved nonstop. Then he tallied up the forms he had stuffed into a manila envelope and walked them across the street to the government office where they would be processed.
Twenty-five people more were on the way to regaining their right to vote, a tiny share of the hundreds of thousands in Virginia who cannot vote because they have been convicted of a felony. But it’s a start, says Walker, who had his own rights restored in 2012 after a conviction for cocaine possession.
Across the country, an estimated 5.85 million U.S. citizens cannot vote because they have a felony conviction on their record, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization. Most of those affected are out of prison and on probation, parole or have completed their sentence.
Reformers say the concept — known as felony voter disenfranchisement — runs counter to basic ideas about democracy and leaves entire communities without a voice in close elections.
Others say the bar to re-entry should remain high to ensure people with felony convictions have turned over a new leaf.
In Pennsylvania, about 50,000 people are in state correctional institutions. Those with felony convictions who will be in prison or a halfway house at the time of an election are not eligible to vote, according to the Department of State. Pennsylvania’s primary elections are on April 26.
Felons who have served their time, even if on probation, can get back to the polls, though. In 2000, the state eliminated a five-year voting ban. However, confusion about who is eligible to vote persists, said Sara Mullen, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] of Pennsylvania.
“Many people either don’t seem to know the law was overturned, or they assume, because many states do have restrictions on the voting rights of people with criminal convictions, that Pennsylvania does, too,” Mullen wrote in an email.
The ACLU distributes know-your-rights cards. Ex-felons in Pennsylvania have their voting rights restored automatically. If they’ve moved to a different residence after prison, they only need to contact their county board of elections to update their voter registration.
Who gets to vote
A patchwork of state laws and policies controls who has the right to vote after a felony conviction.
People convicted of felonies in Maine and Vermont never lose their right to vote. They can even cast absentee ballots while serving prison time.
But in other states like Florida, Kentucky and Iowa, people with felony records cannot vote again unless they successfully petition the governor, a process that can take years and end in a denial.
Most states fall somewhere between, allowing people with felonies to vote after their sentence, or once they’ve completed parole or probation. In some cases, the process is automatic; in others, it requires an individual to apply to the state, especially in the case of serious or violent crimes.
The lack of consistency and awareness of these state rules can lead to losing voters from the rolls.
“The biggest obstacle in most states is that people just do not know that they ever could get their rights restored,” said Edward A. Hailes Jr., managing director and general counsel at the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization.
Advocates and opponents
Supporters of changing the laws say that voting is a building block that can help people lead full, successful lives once they leave prison.
“You have to get people engaged in the community. This is the most fundamental way you can do that,” said Tomas Lopez, counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program, which tracks and supports efforts to roll back felon voter disenfranchisement.
For young people in particular, losing their right to vote as an adolescent could mean they’ll never pick it up because they’re not civically engaged at a young age, he said.
But rights restoration should not be too easy, said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that studies race and ethnicity.
“If you’re not willing to follow the law, then you can’t claim that you have the right to make the law for anyone else,” he said.
People with felony records should have to demonstrate they have changed before they are allowed to vote again — and that process shouldn’t start until they’ve served their entire term, including parole or probation, Clegg said.
While there are many groups working to loosen felony voter restrictions, there are no prominent organizations strictly opposed to any changes for every felon.
Instead, when the issue does reach lawmakers, the debate typically isn’t whether to ever permit someone with a felony record to vote, but when and how to allow it.
Last year, when the Maryland General Assembly initially approved legislation easing the rights restoration process, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed the bill, saying those on probation or parole were still serving their debt to society.
“The current law achieves the proper balance between the repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights,” he said. The Maryland Senate voted to override the veto earlier in early February, after the Maryland House of Delegates did so in January.
Having a say
Reformers say prohibitions on voting because of a felony conviction run counter to American ideals of equality.
“Even if only one person was affected by this policy, it raises fundamental questions by what we mean by democracy,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.
Supporters of ending felony voter disenfranchisement add that the policy can have real and troubling effects on elections — on how politicians approach entire communities and likely even who is elected in some cases.
The numbers of people who lose their right to vote because of a felony conviction is high enough that academics have studied whether the policies can tip elections.
In one oft-cited 2002 study, sociologists looked at voting patterns in Florida during the 2000 election and concluded that Al Gore would have carried the state, and the Electoral College, over George W. Bush had voting rights been extended to people with felony records. The same study looked at 400 Senate elections from 1978 and 2000 and found that seven may have been reversed in favor of Democrats if not for felony disenfranchisement.
Of the citizens affected by felony disenfranchisement, about 2.2 million are black, according to the Sentencing Project. It’s a finding that means about 1 in 13 black adults cannot vote, the group says.
Lopez of the Brennan Center said states’ interest in loosening the rules could partly be an outgrowth of the growing consensus that says criminal justice reform is necessary. Allowing people to participate in their communities may help discourage recidivism, making it a smart-on-crime policy that appeals to policymakers across the political spectrum.
Between 1996 and 2008, 28 states passed laws on felon voting rights. Many of them lifted restrictions, including seven that repealed lifetime disenfranchisement for some people with felony records, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some states have moved in the other direction though, such as a 2011 executive order by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad that rolled back a policy that allowed people with felonies to vote after completing their full sentence. In the order, Branstad said it was important for offenders to be evaluated individually for rights restoration.
Last fall, outgoing Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, issued an executive order that would have made rights restoration easier for many people, but incoming Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, rolled it back because he said the issue was a legislative matter.
Lewis Webb, a program coordinator at the American Friends Service Committee who works on prisoner re-entry issues, said state reforms alone will not be enough. Better education about who can vote and grassroots action to get people to the voting booth also are needed.
“I do believe for this to have any real traction, it’s going to have to return to the street,” he said.
This story was written for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers the issue daily.
PublicSource reporter Stephanie Roman contributed to this report. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.