States Deny Millions Of Ex-Felons Voting Rights
Eric Bates was caught twice in the late 1990s driving with a suspended license, and then again in 2006. That third time, under then-Virginia law, Bates was considered a habitual offender and was prosecuted as a felon.
He served 14 months in prison and was released in 2008. He returned home hoping to put his legal issues behind him and move on with his life.
But like many of the nearly 1 million people who are released from correctional facilities each year, Bates said he has had difficulty finding steady work and making ends meet. His rather pedestrian criminal record has also come with one other lingering consequence: Bates has found himself among the approximately 5.8 million whose voting rights have been taken away because of a felony conviction.
"I owned up to my crime. I served my time and I just want my rights back," Bates, 53, an unemployed electrical engineer, told The Huffington Post. "I want to participate. But it's just as well as if I murdered somebody. It's a life sentence."
Four states permanently disenfranchise ex-felons. In Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, it takes a decree by the governor or a clemency board to restore a person's voting rights, and only after a predetermined waiting period and all fines and fees are paid can an individual submit an application.
In Virginia, that waiting period is two years. In Florida, non-violent felons must wait five years before applying for reinstatement; violent felons must wait seven years.
Seven other states -- Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Wyoming -- allow some with felony convictions to vote after they are released from supervision. In Arizona, for example, one is not permanently disenfranchised until that person has committed two or more felonies, after which voting rights can only be regained through a pardon or restoration by a judge.
The personal and political impact of such disenfranchisement can be enormous, voting rights advocates say, as whole masses are swept off the voting rolls or prevented from participating in the political process, particularly in battleground states or in states where control of the legislature is tenuous.
Many of those disenfranchised because of a felony conviction are poor, African American or Latino.
With the November elections looming, voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression have become hot-button political issues. Recent Republican-led efforts in as many as 11 states across the country have resulted in new voting laws that require state-issued photo identification to cast a ballot. Other states have made it tougher to vote, purged the voter rolls or enacted tough restrictions on third-party voter registration groups.
Voting rights advocates say that laws that disenfranchise felons go hand-in-hand with such voter ID laws, which Democrats and opponents say are specifically designed to target likely Democratic voters, including the poor, minorities, college students and the elderly.
"This is a concerted effort," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) recently reversed course on a policy enacted by his predecessor that expanded voting rights for felons, while the state simultaneously introduced some of the most restrictive voting policies in the country, including massive voter purges of suspected non-citizens, the elimination of early voting and limitations on third-party voter registration groups.
"In at least 34 states there are serious efforts to suppress voter turnout," said Hastings, who particularly noted battleground states like Florida and North Carolina.
Hastings said many of the new laws are akin to a "backdoor poll tax," referring to Jim Crow-era voting laws that required blacks to pay a special fee to vote.
"That impacts African Americans doubly," he said.
One in every 40 American adults is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for voting rights. The number of Americans who have lost their vote due to a conviction has spiked dramatically over the decades, from about 1.2 million in 1976 to 3.3 million in 1996, to more than 5.85 million in 2010, according to a report from the group.
The impact is acute among the African-American voting-age population, where one in 13 is disenfranchised because of a prior conviction.
In three Southern states the numbers are more stark: In Florida, 23 percent of the voting-age black population can't vote because of a felony record; in Kentucky it's 22 percent; and in Virginia it's 20 percent. Taken together, one in five blacks living in those three states is disenfranchised.
Florida, with 1.5 million disenfranchised ex-felons, leads the nation.
Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said felon disenfranchisement has long been used as a tool to suppress the black vote.
McDonald said that during Reconstruction, legislators (primarily Democrats) passed laws specifically designed to depress the political power of recently emancipated blacks, selecting crimes that they thought blacks committed more often than whites as a basis for disenfranchisement.
"I think there's clearly a racial bias, and we know that there is a disproportionate racial impact," McDonald said. "When you marginalize all of these people, you make it much more difficult to rehabilitate them. It doesn't serve anybody's interest."
"But we're not talking about doing a favor for people that commit crimes," he added, "we're talking about trying to ensure that people can be taken back into the system, that they can become descent citizens again."
Sarah Massey, a spokeswoman with Project Vote, said that a clear message is being sent by the engineering of voting laws that specifically target certain demographic groups.
"One out of four black men go to jail in this country, and we [America] have the worst incarceration rate in the Western world. Then taking away people's rights to vote, it all paints a picture to me that one population doesn't deserve to have the same rights as the others," Massey said. "It's all in the numbers of people in jail, and let's be real, it's also about the races of the people in jail."
Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP, contends that legislative records from across the country show that many states have banned formerly incarcerated people from voting "for the expressed purpose of shrinking the black voting base."
In response, the NAACP launched a campaign against felony disenfranchisement with a rally in Tallahassee, Fla., on Tuesday, Oct. 2. A second stop in Virginia took place on Friday. The campaign will include billboards and ads on public transportation and will last through 2013, according to an NAACP spokeswoman.
"While voter ID and registration ID are like Jim Crow, ex-felon voting bans literally are Jim Crow," Jealous said.
Eric Bates, who lives in Richmond, Va., with his wife, has not committed a crime since his release in 2008. Upon his release, he went back to school to build on the two-year degree in computer engineering he'd earned some 20 years earlier.
"I figured that I was a non-violent offender with a lot of work experience, and that the degree would balance things out," Bates said.
Each week Bates said he submits about 50 job applications online to employers. He does occasional repair work for friends of friends and neighbors.
But his criminal record continues to stymie his comeback.
One major obstacle to reinstating his voting rights: $3,000 in fines. Bates says he doesn't have the money to pay the fines because his conviction keeps him from getting a job.
Yet even if the fines were paid, Bates still has to lobby the governor.
"Not being able to vote on top of everything else, it makes me kind of feel like a second-class citizen," Bates said. "I'm not the only one either. There are thousands and thousands of people just like me."
Experts and advocates say that across the country ex-felons are caught in a legal and political limbo trying to regain the franchise, beyond facing the relatively straightforward financial burdens.
State clemency boards claim a backlog of applicants has slowed the review process. Newer voting laws like those in Iowa and Florida have made the application process arduous and complicated. And many formerly incarcerated people are confused about their legal standing and their eligibility to vote.
Richard Walker, founder of Bridging The Gap, a Richmond, Va.-based nonprofit that works with formerly incarcerated people, said that he has talked with many men and women who applied to have their rights restored but were never given an answer by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's office within the required 60 days.
A spokesman for the governor's office in September told WTVR that the office is inundated with restoration requests, but that it works diligently to make notifications in a timely manner.
"The key to remember here is that there are many parts to an application that must be done by our office, by the courts," Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the governor, told WTVR. "Once the application is turned in completed, we strive to make sure that they are notified and will know in enough time for the upcoming election."
Walker said there are some 350,000 convicted felons in Virginia who have not had their rights restored.
"You're losing a population of voters," said Walker, a former felon who recently regained his voting rights.
Caldwell told The Huffington Post that McDonnell, a former prosecutor who campaigned as "tough on crime," has created the "fastest and fairest" restoration of rights process in the state's history.
"The governor is on par to exceed all prior governors with the restoration of rights," Caldwell told HuffPost. To date Caldwell said the governor has restored the rights of about 3,800 former felons, for an approval rate of 80 percent to 85 percent.
"When Gov. McDonnell was running for office, he agreed that the process for the restoration of rights was taking too long," Caldwell said. So McDonnell pledged that his office would process every application in 90 days. After he took office, Caldwell said the governor made an executive decision to cut that time to 60 days.
"He has lived up to that commitment," said Caldwell, who added the applications that are denied generally haven't been filled out properly, or the applicants haven't provided enough information or simply aren't eligible based on their specific conviction.
"[Gov. McDonnell] is a big believer that anybody that has served their time and has been restored to society should have the opportunity to vote and serve on a jury, if they can continue to play by the rules," Caldwell said.
C.C. Holloman, coordinator of the 2012 Community Campaign and Beyond, described the state of affairs in Florida as "outrageous."
Gov. Scott recently reversed laws passed by the previous governor, fellow Republican Charlie Crist, that automatically restored voting rights to felons once they were no longer under state supervision. Today, according to recent news reports, more than 13,000 people who had their rights restored under the Crist administration may not know that they are eligible to vote.
According to the ACLU of Florida, state officials have been unable to locate about 17,604 ex-felons who automatically had their rights restored under Crist. The ACLU scoured state records and found that 75 percent, or 13,517, of that number were not currently registered to vote.
According to people in Florida who work to help ex-felons with the reinstatement process, Scott's administration has also stopped mailing out status notification letters to those who have not committed a crime for the legally required period and who may now be eligible to vote.
Scott's office did not return calls for comment.
Some of Florida's ex-felons say that they were previously granted their voting rights, but that more recently, since Scott took office, they have received letters from the state that say it is "suspected" that they are now ineligible to vote.
"They gave me my voting rights back, but I got a letter a couple of months ago telling me they are taking them away," said Stephen Paulk, 42, of West Palm Beach, who was convicted of drug charges in 1999 and served five years in prison.
A few years after his release in 2003, his voting rights were restored. In 2008 he voted for President Barack Obama.
"I haven't been in trouble in 10 years," said Paulk, an entrepreneur who sells women's clothing and accessories. "I said, 'Damn, I'm still getting prosecuted for something I did time for already.' But we don't have no rights no more. If they don't want you to vote, they won't let you vote."
The Miami Herald recently reported that election supervisors had removed nearly 7,000 people with recent felony convictions from the rolls, which included 2,956 African Americans.
An analysis of state data by the Herald found that Democrats were three times more likely than Republicans to be removed, and that blacks were disproportionately purged. While blacks make up 16 percent of Florida's population, 43 percent of those removed from the rolls were black.
Holloman, the coordinator of the 2012 Community Campaign and Beyond, called the practice voter intimidation.
"The purging and this oppression of eligible people who are ex-offenders is going to have the biggest impact of all the suppression," Holloman said. Through her organization, she said she has helped nearly 1,500 men and women apply to have their rights restored. Only a few have actually been granted those rights, she said.
Among those still waiting to have their voting rights restored, she said, are some people with convictions from as far back as 15 years who have committed no crime since their release.
"They don't know where to turn for help," Holloman said.
Iowa, like Florida, had passed measures in 2005 that automatically restored ex-felons' voting rights, but Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who took office in 2011, has repealed those measures.
Ex-felons in Iowa now must appeal directly to the governor to have their franchise restored, in addition to submitting a credit report. According to the Associated Press, of the 8,000 Iowans who have completed their terms during Branstad's term, only 11 have succeeded in regaining their voting rights.
'I JUST WANT TO PARTICIPATE'
Family conversations around Moranda Lambert's dinner table often begin or end with talk of politics. And neither she nor her husband is usually the one who does the talking. Lambert's 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son are full-blown fanatics of President Obama and the first family.
Lambert's daughter, a member of her school's safety patrol, even got the chance to meet Michelle Obama.
"She wants to do the right thing and be a leader and not a follower," said Lambert, 33, a Florida State University graduate who lives with her husband and children in Riviera Beach, Fla.
"But she has to sit back and watch me with no voice and no rights," said Lambert, who was incarcerated for six months in 2004 after she was convicted of felony assault with a deadly weapon after a fight with a former friend got out of hand.
Lambert said her attempts to regain her voting rights have failed. Six months ago she went through a clemency program and applied for her voting rights, she said, but was denied.
She said she has done all she can to show that her crime was an aberration, a blip in an otherwise positive and purpose-driven life. She's active in her church and does volunteer work in her community.
Still, she struggles.
Because of her felony conviction, the nursing and cosmetology licenses she'd earned have been taken. And she has yet to find steady employment. Lambert described her situation as "a rock between two hard places."
She can't find a job, she can't vote, and she feels as if she's been relegated to a social and civic abyss. "I'm here with no voice," Lambert said.
"I just want to participate and make the world better," she said. "It's like sitting in a corner: You're stuck and there's nothing to say."
Lambert believes her prospects for restoration are dim. Given the current political climate, she said, it "looks like it'll be 15 or 20 years before I can be recognized for all the positive changes that I've made and the positive influence that I've had on the community."
Back in Richmond, Va., Darryl Williams said he has been waiting on word from the state clemency board about his application to have his voting rights restored.
Back in 1997, when Williams was barely 19, he said the police caught him with a sawed-off shotgun. He was convicted on felony weapons charges and spent two years in a state prison.
Today Williams is 35 and describes himself as a model citizen who hasn't been in any legal trouble in 12 or so years.
"My life changed a whole lot, because back then I was running around, young and dumb, being stupid," Williams said.
Williams laments the difficulty of trying to better himself while the state is "so hard on felons."
"Even after so many years it's hard, but I turned my life around. And if the government decided to give me my rights back, I can keep trying to better myself," Williams said.
He's applied twice to have his voting rights restored. The first time, he said, he was denied because the paperwork wasn't filled out properly. The second time he took his time and went over each page of the application meticulously.
"Now I'm just waiting on everything, being patient. It's nerve-wracking but worth the wait," he said. "I just want to be back in society. Voting lets you do that."