Push to register thousands long disenfranchised
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - 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 drunken-driving 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.
"You're eligible to vote now, Mr. Pompey," Mitchell said, calmly relaying the news. "Can I bring you a voter-registration card?"
Pompey whispered, "Lord, you was listening."
Mitchell smiled - he had gotten another felon back on the rolls.
Mitchell is a leader of a disparate group of low-level Democrats and civil rights activists 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 those prospective voters.
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 conduct a voter-registration day at the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland next 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 Saturday 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 change in the law last year has made more than 115,000 felons eligible to vote, according to the Florida Parole Commission. In other states, local civil rights and criminal justice groups estimate there are similar numbers who have not registered.
All but two states - Maine and Vermont - have laws that 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 Kaine, a Democrat, has encouraged non-violent 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 non-violent felons to vote as long as they have no charges pending, have paid restitution and have completed probation.
Mark Bubriski, Obama'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."The majority of felons in the state are white, and there are no studies on ex-offenders' party affiliation. Yet, black men are disproportionately incarcerated and 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.
I am not a person who is soft on crime-- the husband of a close friend was recently killed and I like to see bad guys kept off the streets. One of my best friends from high school got out of the fed pen 18 months ago (corporate corruption) and we have resumed our friendship which has been a nice thing. (I spoke to him of my finances and he was able to advise me. It was what Darrin had said but he spoke in a way that wasn't condescending, and even told me how to agree with my husband without feeling like I had lost face.)
This being said, I think that once a person is convicted and serves his or her time, they become tax paying citizens and should get the same rights as everyone else. My friend from school gets to vote again in 3 years and he can't wait. I believe that when you disenfranchise a group that it becomes powerless. Once a person is out of a half-way house, they are still on probation and still need to earn a living. In an area like my city, that poses a problem because we have a housing shortage. Four guys from a halfway house can't get a place together because they are not supposed to fraternize with former convicts. How do they survive? Rent is about $850 for a one bedroom apartment on a bus line. They can't pay rent and child support and utilities with a $10 an hour job, they can't get state or student loans, and they are pretty much cut off from a decent lifestyle as no one wants to hire them or promote them.
I think that by allowing ex offenders to vote will bring a voice to them and that their needs will be looked at and that laws will be made to make their road easier and they will have a chance to make a living, too.
I realize that when it comes to civil rights, a rapist takes away the right of his victim, as of course does a murderer or a person who beats someone up-- and it goes on. That being said, I know what at least some in MY STATE go through and the politicians have not made it easy on ex offenders getting back into society. It is easy for politicians to take away from this group because so many people can casually say, "Lock'm/er up and throw away the key!" before hearing what has happened. Who questions how judges show evidence to juries and the laws that allow that? Politicians are not committed to creating laws for judges or lawyers to follow that maintain a foundation for a fair trial; a rich person will not throw him or herself at the mercy of the court in our country. Maybe this is what is needed.