Ever since his own three-month stint behind bars, Steve Huerta has mentored fathers emerging from prison. But it soon dawned on him that they needed more than advice to break the cycle of joblessness and incarceration. What they needed, he decided, was political power.
So seven years ago, Mr. Huerta, a community organizer in San Antonio, began a door-knocking campaign to encourage former felons to vote, which is their right in Texas as long as they are no longer on probation or parole. Mr. Huerta has recruited formerly incarcerated people to head precincts, responsible for getting their neighbors to the polls. And he meticulously tracks the turnout rate of 98,000 voters with criminal records.
“This is an entirely new voting bloc,” said Mr. Huerta, who now represents his area on a statewide organizing committee for the Democratic Party in Texas. “It’s a political game-changer for struggling communities.”
Mr. Huerta is part of a growing national movement that is pushing to politically empower formerly incarcerated people by encouraging them to vote if they are eligible and pushing to restore their rights if they are not. Most states curb the voting rights of former felons to some degree; an estimated six million people nationwide are barred from voting because of felony convictions. But a number of states are now considering whether to get rid of the disenfranchisement laws that block felons from the polls.
In Florida, where 10 percent of adults can’t vote because of a felony conviction, a ballot initiative in November would automatically restore voting rights after a prison sentence has been completed. In New Jersey, state legislators are considering a bill that would allow people in prison to vote. It would be the third state, after Maine and Vermont, to do so.
Supporters say the movement gives former felons hope that they will one day overcome the stigma of incarceration and be accepted as responsible citizens, in addition to giving impoverished communities a greater voice. But many conservative groups fiercely oppose the changes, arguing that people need to first prove that they are upstanding members of society before they can vote.
Spearheaded by voting rights activists who have themselves served time in prison, the movement has racked up successes in recent years. In 2016, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia restored the voting rights of more than 150,000 people who had completed their sentences. And last year, Alabama passed a law that clarified which crimes stripped the right to vote, allowing thousands of nonviolent offenders to cast a ballot. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently announced that he will grant up to 35,000 parolees the right to vote.
“Rights restoration is all a part of a nationwide struggle to make America a real democracy,” said Assaddique Abdul-Rahman, a 54-year-old Virginia man who had struggled with homelessness and incarceration since age 16, when he was sent to prison for robbery. After his rights were restored by Mr. McAuliffe, he began to help other formerly incarcerated people register to vote. Eventually, a group called the New Virginia Majorityhired him as an organizer.
“In prison, they made sure to tell us, ‘You will never be able to vote, unless the governor restores your rights,’” he said. “I knew that those who could not vote did not have power. We were the underbelly.”
It’s unclear how these new voters might change the political landscape. Some political scientists predict that increasing felon turnout would have a relatively small impact, since it would advantage Democrats in urban areas where they already hold sway. But that could change as more formerly incarcerated people flee expensive city centers, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political-science professor at the University of Houston.
“As more ex-felons settle in suburbs, the current battleground for so many political battles, expanding voting rights to felons and active registration of ex-felons may flip some seats currently held by Republicans to the Democrats,” Professor Rottinghaus said. In Texas, he pointed to potential gains for Democrats in far west Houston, east Dallas and San Antonio, all areas with competitive congressional races this fall.
In states with strict voting laws that disenfranchise felons indefinitely — such as Florida — increasing turnout would likely make a difference in election outcomes, said Christopher Uggen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, who estimated that Democratic votes lost to felon disenfranchisement would have changed the outcome of seven Senate races since 1978, as well as the 2000 presidential election of George W. Bush.
The activists insist their work is nonpartisan and say they support candidates of any party who pledge to expand felons’ access to jobs, student loans, and the polls. But such politicians are rare, Mr. Huerta said. Democrats and Republicans alike tend to avoid campaigning in neighborhoods with high concentrations of felons.
The United States is one of only a handful of countries that strips voting rights from felons even after they have served their time. The concept dates back to the colonial era, when certain criminals were shunned and stripped of rights, a practice known as “civil death.” But it only began to impact large numbers of people in the wake of the Civil War, when several Southern states used it to disenfranchise black men who had recently gained the right to vote. Today, laws barring felons from voting vary by state. Eligibility can change radically from one governor to the next, causing widespread confusion.
The movement to restore felons’ voting rights has gotten tangled up in partisan ideological battles, with Democratic leaders tending to support expanded access to the ballot and Republicans opposing it.
People who commit serious crimes “should be required to prove that they have turned over a new leaf before we invite them back into the fold to be able to participate in the electoral process,” said Jason Snead, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, who argues for stepped-up scrutiny of felons at the ballot box as part of a broader campaign against voter fraud.
At least 180 felons have been prosecuted for voting over the past 20 years, according to a list of voting-related convictions and civil judgments compiled by Mr. Snead. The list includes over 100 felons who were prosecuted in Minnesota after a local citizens group, the Minnesota Majority, crosschecked the names of released felons against the list of people who cast ballots in 2008.
“Voter fraud is a felony,” said Dan McGrath, a volunteer with the group, now defunct. “We think it’s a threat to our democracy.”
But many former felons who have been prosecuted for voting say they did not know they were ineligible, including Crystal Mason, a Texas woman who recently received a five-year prison sentence for voting in 2016. Ms. Mason, who was on probation for tax fraud, cast a provisional ballot with the help of a poll worker.
Uncertainty over whether they are eligible and fear of prosecution keep large numbers of felons from casting ballots, said Marc Meredith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Even in states that allow felons to vote, he said, their turnout rate lingers between 10 to 20 percent in a presidential election year, far below the general population.
“Given that the downsides of voting illegally could be so harsh, relative to the benefit,” he said, some felons refuse to take the risk of voting even if they think they are eligible.
Punishments handed down to those convicted of illegal voting vary widely, from the payment of court fees to years in prison. In Texas, judges have sent felons back to prison for violating the terms of their probation by committing a new crime — voting while ineligible.
Last year, formerly incarcerated activists put on their first national conference, which was attended by about 500 people. It buoyed local efforts across the country. In Louisiana, Norris Henderson, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he insists he did not commit, heads Voice of the Experienced, a group working to expand the franchise to 71,000 people on probation and parole. In California, Dorsey Nunn, who served 10 years for his role in a deadly liquor store robbery, now heads a prisoner legal aid office that is pushing to allow low-level felons serving time in county jails to vote.
And in Texas, Mr. Huerta presses on with his door-knocking efforts. Since Ms. Mason’s prison sentence, he has revamped his material to include more prominent warnings against voting while on probation or parole. When people question whether voting is safe, he assures them it is not only safe, but vital.
“It’s our lifeline,” he says.
He uses his own 1999 conviction for speeding, drunken driving and drug possession to show former felons that they can also become voters and even elected officials.
In San Antonio’s City Council District 5, where more than 17 percent of voters have either a felony or a misdemeanor on their record, Mr. Huerta’s team has reached out to nearly half of all affected households over a period of years.
Mr. Huerta believes that boosting turnout is key to bringing needed resources into poor neighborhoods.
“No one spends money on people with no voting history,” he said.
He said felons and their families have already helped elect more sympathetic judges and a district attorney, Nico LaHood, who has an arrest record for a youthful drug offense.
In low-turnout local races, Mr. Huerta said, “We have the ability to elect justice-impacted people to the school boards that control a billion-dollar budget with about 600 votes.”
But if he succeeds, he expects a backlash. Given how many Americans have spent time behind bars, he said, “People may be thinking, ‘What if they all vote?’”