Republican and Democratic politicians across the country are deeply divided over restoring the right to vote to felons, a political fracture that affects millions of convicted criminals.
In Iowa and Kentucky, Democratic governors issued executive orders to restore voting rights to many felons only to have them rescinded by Republican governors who succeeded them.
Democratic legislators in 29 states proposed more than 270 bills over the past six years that would have made it easier for some felons to vote but very few passed, especially in legislatures controlled by Republicans, News21 found in an analysis of state legislative measures nationwide.
Debate and decisions about restoring voting rights to felons often follow partisan lines because felons, particularly African-Americans, are viewed as more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, voting rights experts told News21.
Nationwide, one in 13 black voters is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction as opposed to one in 56 non-black voters, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on criminal justice sentencing policies and racial disparities.
In Alabama, Delaware, Wyoming and Maryland, six laws passed that increased felons’ access to the ballot. For example, Delaware eliminated the five-year waiting period and requirement that felons pay court-appointed fees before having their rights restored. Another six bills were enacted in Texas, California, Louisiana and Virginia to address procedures, access to information and legal clarifications.
Democrats proposed 10 of the enacted bills, Republicans one, and another came from a nonpartisan legislative committee.
“Democrats are probably going to like it (felon voting) because they are going to expect a draw of votes and Republicans tend to object,” said Lynn M. Sanders, a University of Virginia professor and expert in American government. “The people who do not register and do not tend to vote are usually poorer, less white, younger and more likely to have complicated backgrounds, like a conviction.”
“This issue is very politicized because some Republicans associate the expanding franchise with more Democratic votes,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at The Sentencing Project. The organization estimates nearly 6 million felons are disenfranchised nationwide.
IOWA AMONG TOUGHEST ON FELON VOTING
News21’s analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislators found 316 bills nationwide that would have allowed more access to voting for felons. Republican-controlled legislatures blocked 137, 101 failed to pass in states with divided control, and 65 were unsuccessful in Democratic-controlled legislatures. Maryland’s Republican governor successfully vetoed one bill.
“Most of these people are not currently incarcerated,” said Ghandnoosh. “They’re living among us in their communities, but because of restrictions and laws that prevent people from being able to vote, until they’ve gone through a number of hurdles, they are not able to engage and be a part of our democracy.”
Maine and Vermont are the only states where felons never lose the right to vote, even in prison. “You don’t lose your citizenship when you get incarcerated,” said Foster Bates, an inmate at the Maine State Prison and president-elect of its NAACP chapter. “You shouldn’t be limited in what you can vote for and who you can vote for.”
Bates, who was convicted of murder, said more than 1,200 inmates are registered to vote in Maine. “To assume these people don’t understand the process is a cry for justice,” he said. “Voting in here is everything to us.”
Iowa, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia impose the strictest laws that can permanently disenfranchise felons, regardless of the offenses. Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a blanketed restoration of voting rights to felons earlier this year, but the Virginia Supreme Court struck it down. McAuliffe was disappointed with the decision because he said it was made for political reasons.
The remaining states vary widely in voting rights for felons, from automatic restoration after incarceration to a two-year waiting period.
Florida requires those convicted of nonviolent offenses to wait five years and those convicted of more serious offenses to wait seven years before applying for clemency. The Florida Commission on Offender Review’s Board of Executive Clemency, which currently includes the governor, state attorney general, chief financial officer and commissioner of agriculture, decides whether to grant or deny the request. Members of the board could not be reached for comment.
Over the past six years, Florida’s Democrats have introduced nine bills that would have made it easier for felons to vote, but none passed in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Orlando-area Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson said Florida’s law, which affects nearly 1 in 4 African-Americans, is the modern-day equivalent of a poll tax. “This is the most effective disenfranchisement tool in the country,” Grayson said. “Other efforts are amateurist.”
Without a vote, advocates say people are disconnected from politics and society.
VIRGINIA TACKLING VOTING RIGHTS HEAD-ON
Richard Walker, founder of Bridging the Gap in Virginia, a nonprofit organization that helps the formerly incarcerated re-enter society, spent 14 months in prison for possession of cocaine and writing bad checks to purchase and resell stamps. Since his release in 2005, he’s been traveling across Virginia to convince felons their votes matter.
“It gives them a voice. It gives them the opportunity to say ‘I am a citizen because I do vote,’” Walker said. “Without that, folk have the feeling that they’re marginalized and that they’re not a part of society. That’s a gut-wrenching thought to say that I have no voice and I can’t vote.
Even before his sweeping executive order, McAuliffe said he had restored voting rights to 18,000 felons by granting individual pardons.
“You take the last seven governors over their four-year terms and I did more (restored more rights) in my two years. So this is not new,” he said.
McAuliffe told News21 at the Democratic National Convention that his actions were for moral reasons, not political reasons.
“I’m committed and passionate,” he said. “It isn’t about Election Day — it’s about letting these folks come back in and vote and feel good about themselves.”
McAuliffe issued his executive order April 22 restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed the terms of their sentences, including probation and parole.
Less than a month later, major players in the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly – including House Speaker William J. Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. – challenged McAuliffe’s order with a lawsuit, arguing that the governor violated the state constitution.
The Virginia Supreme Court agreed. In a 4-3 decision in July, Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons said the court “respectfully disagreed” with McAuliffe’s belief that the governor holds the power to make blanket restorations. Howell and Norment could not be reached for comment.
Since April, about 13,000 felons registered to vote — just 6 percent of those who were eligible before the recent court ruling, according to a news release McAuliffe issued after the ruling. In his statement, he said he plans to “expeditiously sign nearly 13,000 individual orders to restore the fundamental rights of the citizens who have had their rights restored and registered to vote.”
The University of Virginia’s Sanders said she doesn’t expect these actions to have a large-scale effect on the state’s policies in the immediate future, even in “a critical battleground state” like Virginia.
“Voting is a habit. It takes a while to get that habit established,” she said. “Only a set of them are going to get registered. It is true that most of them would vote Democratic, but we’re not talking about a ton of votes very quickly.”
Michelle Fisher of Norfolk, Virginia, had waited 30 years to have her rights restored. “Some people change,” she said. “They don’t keep going (down) the same road, and it’s an awesome thing that he (McAuliffe) did. It’s going to help a lot of people.”
However, felons like Fisher who received their rights under McAuliffe’s order will be removed for now from the voter registrar list because of the court’s decision.
“Everyone is disappointed. They thought they were giving them a chance to vote and be a part of society,” said Brandon Polly, an employee at New Virginia Majority, a grassroots advocacy organization. “It’s like a slap in the face all over again.”
MODELS FOR RESTORING RIGHTS
While Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, doesn’t support permanent disenfranchisement, he does think felons should have to show “they’ve turned over a new leaf.”
He said Iowa, Florida and Kentucky — all states that require applications reviewed individually — are good models for rights restoration.
“If you’re not willing to follow the law, you can’t make the law for everyone else,” Clegg said.
In 2005, Iowa’s Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack also issued an executive order restoring voting rights to felons who had completed their full sentences — a move that enfranchised more than 115,000 felons, according to The Sentencing Project’s 2010 report. The order was rescinded six years later by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.
Today, any Iowan convicted of an “infamous crime” must submit an application to the governor for an individual pardon. And according to an Iowa Supreme Court ruling in June, every felony is considered an “infamous crime.”
“This ruling goes in line with 150 years of precedent and has been reaffirmed by the people of Iowa and their elected representatives on multiple occasions,” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a statement.
VOTING RIGHTS ON THE TABLE
In Kentucky, felons must also submit applications to the governor. Each is reviewed on an individual basis.
Last year, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear tried to establish automatic restoration procedures before leaving office, issuing an executive order that would have granted voting rights to more than 140,000 nonviolent offenders who completed their sentences and paid restitution. A month later, newly elected Republican Gov. Matt Bevin rescinded the order.
Kentucky Rep. Darryl T. Owens has also pushed for automatic restoration for felons who have completed their full sentences. Each year, his legislation passes the state’s Democratic-controlled House of Representatives but fails to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate.
“I think there are a number of Republicans who would vote for it if given an opportunity but leadership, I assume for whatever reason, has chosen not to even call it for a hearing,” Owens said. “They’ve never had a vote on it.”
Republican Rep. Adam Koenig always votes against it, saying it’s “trying to fix something that’s not that broken.”
“There are numerous elected officials, mostly mayors and city council members throughout Kentucky, who are convicted felons and have had their voting rights restored,” he said. “It is not a very complicated process.”
Tayna Fogle, a Kentucky felon, had her rights restored 10 years ago. It took her 15 years to get there and she hasn’t missed a chance to vote since. In 1991, Fogle was charged with possession of a forged instrument and possession of cocaine. She served six years and nine months of a 10-year sentence.
“Did the crime, did the time. I’m back,” she said. “I’m supposed to be embraced. I’m supposed to be able to vote.”
Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton had restored Fogle’s rights around 2002. However, a paperwork mistake prevented her from voting in an upcoming election, she said.
“I was crying. It was a primary — they were voting on who got the rights to the water here in Lexington, Kentucky … and the school board had an important announcement, and they was trying to get the board together,” Fogle said. “And I remember saying, ‘They took my right to vote back, and I can’t vote anymore.’”
She later reapplied under Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher who restored her rights in 2006. But that process required three character references and a short essay.
The Kentucky Department of Corrections received 16,016 applications from felons between 2002 and 2015 — about 72 percent of applicants were granted their rights.
Sarah Grady, an attorney who leads the Prisoners’ Rights Project for Loevy & Loevy civil rights law firm, has researched the history of felony disenfranchisement and refutes Kentucky lawmakers who claim that the system is effective. She points to the low number of applicants compared with the state’s overall disenfranchised population of more than 170,000, according to The Sentencing Project.
“Given the low number of applications, that’s not an appropriate remedy to fix what the governor himself is acknowledging by an 80 percent approval rating,” Grady said. “It’s a silly draconian law that really has no place in modern society.”
Lexington native Mantell Stevens has tried to complete the restoration application multiple times. He’s been unable to vote since being convicted of felony drug possession in 2000, serving 30 days in jail and three years’ probation.
Stevens said Kentucky’s process requires a lot of information not readily available or easily accessible. “It’s a lot of misinformation. Someone who has kids, who is looking for a job or is trying to keep their job doesn’t have time to keep getting bounced around to different offices,” he said. “They don’t care enough to give you the right information. I know that was the case for me.”
“If I pay my taxes and I abide by the law, I want all the rights as any other citizens,” Stevens said. “That’s not too much to ask for — to be treated like anybody else.”
This report is part of the project titled “Voting Wars – Rights | Power | Privilege,” produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.