For Those Once Behind Bars, A Nudge to the Voting Booth

Krissah Williams Thompson, Washington Post, August 11, 2008

Herbert Pompey had gone through rehab, stayed sober, held a job, married and started a landscaping business in the two years since he walked out of Taylor Correctional Institution. But what Pompey hadn’t done—and what he assumed a string of felony drug and DUI convictions would keep him from ever doing again—was vote.

So his pulse quickened when civil rights lawyer Reggie Mitchell called to tell him that his rights had been restored.

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Mitchell is a leader of a disparate group of grass-roots Democrats and civil rights activists who are trying to register tens of thousands of newly eligible felons. They have taken up the cause on their own, motivated by the belief that former offenders have been unfairly disenfranchised for decades. Despite massive registration efforts, the presidential campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have not designated anyone to go after the group.

In Alabama, Al Sharpton’s younger brother, the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, will take his “Prodigal Son” ministry into state prisons with voter-registration cards for the first time. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed suit there and in Tennessee to make it possible for an even larger class of felons to register. In Ohio, the NAACP will hold a voter-registration day at the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland this month to register “people caught up in the criminal justice system,” a local official said. In California, a team will stand in front of jails on Aug. 16 to register people visiting prisoners and encourage them to take registration cards to their incarcerated friends or family members, some of whom can legally vote.

“This is a voting block that has never been open before, and it has opened up at such a time as this,” said Glasgow, who was a felon himself.

In Florida, a law change last year made more than 115,000 felons eligible to vote, according to the state Parole Commission. In other states, civil rights and criminal justice groups estimate there are similar numbers who have not registered.

All but two states—Maine and Vermont—limit voting rights for people with felony convictions. Some felons are banned from voting until they have completed parole and paid restitution, others for life. Kentucky and Virginia have the most restrictive laws, denying all felons the right to vote, though Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has encouraged nonviolent offenders to apply to have their rights restored.

Generally, though restoring voting rights has hit resistance from all directions. Not wanting to appear soft on crime, Democratic and Republican leaders have not aggressively pursued the issue. In Florida, black state legislators led the fight for a decade before populist Republican Gov. Charlie Crist pushed through the change shortly after being elected in 2006. The legislation permits many nonviolent felons to vote as long as they have no charges pending, have paid restitution and have completed probation.

But getting the ex-offenders registered has been a slow process.

Mitchell, 43, a Democrat and Obama backer, is leading the effort in Tallahassee and has created an “Ex-Felon Targets” database to search for potential voters. He calls getting voter-registration cards to them a “passionate hobby.”

“The majority of people to get their rights restored are Democrats, and if we get them registered, [we] might overtake the state,” he said.

The Obama campaign isn’t so sure. Mark Bubriski, the candidate’s spokesman in Florida, said the felon vote “could certainly swing an election, but there are millions and millions of voters.” Bubriski added that finding ex-offenders can be hard to do, and that “there’s also the perception, for some reason, that they are all black and all Democrats, and that’s certainly not the case.”

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The majority of felons in the state [Florida] are white, and there are no studies on ex-offenders’ party affiliation. Yet black men are disproportionately incarcerated and disproportionately disenfranchised, which Mitchell sees as a civil rights issue. Before the law changed, nearly a third of the state’s black men were banned from voting, according to the Florida chapter of the ACLU.

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mitchell

Reggie Mitchell.


Washington Post reporter Krissah Williams Thompson was online Monday, Aug. 11 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her article about Democratic activists working to inform and register Florida felons whose voting rights have been restored.

The transcript follows.

New York: This just seems like a horrifyingly bad idea from a political perspective. All the McCain campaign heeds to do is run a bunch of photos of black ex-felons with Obama stickers, and pow, Obama has lost a few swing states full of edgy white voters. Could these efforts in fact end up tilting votes away from the activists’ favorite candidates?

Krissah Williams Thompson: Interesting point. Neither the Obama nor the McCain campaigns are targeting ex-felons. Both campaigns are undergoing massive voter registration drives and in some states ex-offenders are a large part of the potential new voter pool. Many of the activists who have been reaching out to felons belive the kind of political blow back you suggest is keeping the presidential candidates hands off.

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New York: The felons you are referring to here almost exclusively are nonviolent offenders. We can assume a large majority of them are drug offenders. As you are aware, and as you chose to leave out of your article, the drug laws in Florida and elsewhere have some interesting quirks. Among them, possession of powder cocaine remains a misdemeanor at five times the amount at which crack cocaine posession becomes a felony. As a result, you have racially disparate outcomes in terms of indictments and prosecutions for “felonies.” But don’t let the facts get in the way of some good ol’ Republican fearmongering, Krissah.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Here’s another point, which didn’t make it into the story but some of the activist I talked to also pointed out. In some places, many of the felony convictions are due to non-violent drug offenses.

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Reston, Va.: Hello. In the article, it appears that this movement only is addressing black ex-felons. Is there a reason they actively are discriminating against other races?

Krissah Williams Thompson: There are some groups that are registering felons across the board. Reggie Mitchell, the activist that I profiled, is particularly interested in helping to register black felons in his community, which he explains in the story. I would say he is focusing on one community not “actively discriminating.”

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mediaskeptic: It’s interesting that activist Mitchell compares the disenfranchisement of felons (!) to the historic disenfranchisement of blacks. I guess can conclude that our educational system’s pushing of postmodern attitudes has robbed much of the public of any ability to discern how felons, black or any other color, neither deserve to vote nor have any particularly valuable platforms to back politically. Are they in favor not only of Obama but also of leniency for all misdemeanors and felonies, so that they can continue to prey on people? This all comes at the expense of law-abiding members of society.

Krissah Williams Thompson: More comments.

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