NYT: “They Served Their Time. Now They’re Fighting for Other Ex-Felons to Vote.”

Steve Huerta, a community organizer in San Antonio, has started a campaign to encourage former felons to vote, which is their right in Texas as long as they are no longer on probation or parole.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

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.

Edward Galvan, 31, who was formerly incarcerated, registered to vote.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times


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.

Dorsey Nunn, third from left, served 10 years for his role in a deadly liquor store robbery. He now heads a prisoner legal aid office in California that is pushing to allow low-level felons serving time in county jails to vote.CreditPeter DaSilva for The New York Times


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.

Mr. Huerta has meticulously tracked the turnout rate of 98,000 voters with criminal records.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times


“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.

At an event at the California State Capitol last month, former felons learned how to lobby lawmakers on bills advocating better rights for themselves and their families.CreditPeter DaSilva for The New York Times


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?’”

Getting Out the Vote Behind Bars

With California election campaigns in full swing, interest groups are launching voter registration drives in neighborhoods, churches, union halls — and even jails.

Thousands of people in jails and on probation are being urged to vote following an obscure but potentially helpful legal ruling in 2012 in Riverside County, along with a change of heart in Sacramento.

The legal decision came after Vonya K. Quarles of Corona mounted a drive during the summer before the 2012 general election to make better citizens of inmates in Riverside County jails by registering them to vote.

As a result of the ruling by Riverside County Superior Court Judge Sharon J. Waters, voter registration material were made immediately available to inmates in the jails, and volunteers could visit to assist in registration. But the ruling did not come in time for the 2012 general election.

Now, in the first presidential election year since the ruling, Quarles and other advocates are ramping up get-out-the-vote drives in jails across Southern California with hopes of building on the Riverside experience.

“If you want people to be responsible, you want them to engage in the community and take responsibility for their lives — like with voting,” said Quarles — who is executive director and co-founder of Starting Over Inc., which provides transitional housing for women and children.

She certainly knows. As a youth in south Los Angeles, she had drug issues, which led to convictions and imprisonment. But when released, she cleaned up, had a 20-year career in the oil refinery industry, and then earned a law degree — joining the California Bar in 2013.

Along the way she learned the notion that convicts can’t vote, which many believe to be true, is in fact a myth.

In California people who have been convicted of either federal or state felonies and misdemeanors can vote — as long as they are not in state prison or on parole. (The provision blocking voting after a felony was rescinded in 1974 by a California constitutional amendment.)

And the number of California residents who fit into this category increased by between 60,000 and 70,000 after the state’s justice system realignment in 2011, whereby inmates convicted of lower-level, non-violent crimes were transferred to county jails or put on county-supervised probation.

A Hard Sell

In 2014, advocates in Alameda County won a Superior Court order that these individuals could vote. But then Secretary of State Debra Bowen appealed the order.

However, after years of efforts by inmate advocates, current Secretary of State Alex Padilla last year cancelled the appeal. Padilla’s decision followed years of efforts by activists around the state to help the formerly incarcerated lead productive lives.

But pushing for voting by those in jail remains a touchy subject, which some groups avoid.

In San Diego, officials of the League of Women Voters there declined to discuss the issue. While the American Civil Liberties Union of California is putting out information on such voting, San Diego affiliate officials also declined interview requests. San Diego County Register of Voters Michael Vu said his office wasn’t going into jails for registration.

Nonetheless, while the concept may be a tough sell to some sheriffs — who in California run the county jails — progress is being made.

For example, officials in Riverside Sheriff Stanley Sniff’s department say they have modified the informational voting pamphlet and keep voter registration forms readily available for the jail system’s 3,500 inmates.

“We are going above and beyond the settlement,” said Scot Collins, a chief deputy in the Riverside department.

At the Riverside Registrar of Voters office, Art Tinoco said that in 2014 staff provided the sheriff’s department with 1,000 registration forms, with 12 returned. He couldn’t say how many of those voted.

While the number low and less that satisfying for advocates, it is double the number previously returned for registration.

Meanwhile, systems used in some other counties, including Orange, are still seen as restricting the ability to vote.

For instance, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department — like others in San Diego, Imperial and San Bernardino — has a policy where eligible inmates can register to vote, but they must ask deputies for the documents.

“If you have to contact a deputy, we feel that is problematic,” said Quarles. “There are good deputies, but some are non-responsive to inmate needs. When it comes to a person’s right to voting material, they shouldn’t have to go through that kind of barrier.”

Neal Kelley, Orange County’s Registrar of Voters, said his agency provides voter registration material to Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ department; where deputies say they distribute the documents after inmate requests.

“At this moment, I am pretty comfortable” with the system, Kelley said.

For the 2012 General Election, Kelley’s office sent 1,400 registration documents to the sheriff for the jails — of those 46 were returned. For the 2014 election, 550 registration forms were sent, with 56 returned.

Officials said they had no records on voting from the jail.
Typically, there are about 6,500 inmates in Orange County jails.

In Southern California, only Los Angeles County has an active program involving both that region’s registrar of voters and trained and certified volunteers [who also get security clearances] to help register inmates in jails. Los Angeles has average jail population of about 22,000 inmates, the largest such system in the world.

Los Angeles provided records dating to 2004 for both jail registrants and those who voted. In 2012 for the General Election, for instance, 1,228 registered with 661 voting. In 2008, 599 registered and 305 voted.

Inmate advocates — including a number who were previously incarcerated themselves — say having certified volunteers go to jails is vital to increase voting.

While the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2000 approved of a jail voter registration program, officials say it didn’t get any traction until about 2006.

That was when volunteers started working with the county registrar and the jails to boost registration, said Joseph Paul, who manages vocational services at Shields for Families, a non-profit agency in Compton.

“We decided to leverage the historical situation with an African American running for president to demonstrate the intention of democracy,” said Paul, who now has a coalition of at least 60 volunteers involved in registration.

“We use the right to vote as a way to educate our men and women,” he said. “People have felt ostracized and excluded; they felt the vote didn’t matter. We try to make it relevant.”

Such efforts were pioneered by a San Francisco advocacy group called: All of Us or None. [A line from a Bertolt Brecht poem.] The AOUON group also was co-plaintiff with Quarles in her Riverside lawsuit.

From San Quentin to the White House

Key among them is Dorsey Nunn, who himself was incarcerated more than 35 years ago for being involved in a murder.

It is a journey that has taken him from a cell at San Quentin State Prison to walking the halls of the White House; where he was invited after coining the phrase “ban the box,” an employment document notation for criminal history that is being eliminated nationally by legislation.

“When you get down deep, you see the voting right is the definition of citizenship,” said Nunn. “I use this issue to motivate people. The state should ensure the eligible have support to vote in all county jails.”

Hutchens’ office said in a statement: “To say that voter registration is key to empowering individuals is a little simplistic. [But] the act of voting is a good indicator of a person attempting to integrate into the community.”

The statement said the sheriff was supportive of efforts to increase inmate voting, as long as they weren’t disruptive and conformed with security requirements.

Building on Nunn’s philosophy, Quarles engaged Joshua E. Kim, an attorney for A New Way of Life Reentry Project in Los Angeles, for the litigation.

The Riverside decision is so obscure that it wasn’t known by several registrars of voters, including Kelley, who is the current president of the California Association of Clerks and Elected Officials.

While the Riverside ruling did not create a statewide precedent, Kim said it could be used to prompt recalcitrant Southern California counties to improve voting programs for inmates.

An advocate could file the case in a county like Orange and seek “judicial notice” of the decision, attorneys say. A Superior Court judge then would rule, with a sheriff intervening if desired.

“There is no reason this couldn’t be done in other counties,” said Kim.

Officials with the League of Women Voters‘ chapters in Orange County expressed interest when they learned from a reporter of the drives to increase registration in jails.

“That’s not something we have ever done,” said Joan Hake, a League volunteer for 25 years in the central region. “Absolutely, we might do that.”

“I think this is a very interesting subject,” said Susan Guilford of Orange, who is president of the organization coordinating the League’s local chapters. “I plan to put the idea on an agenda for one of our coming meetings.

In its statement, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department statement said it would “work hand in hand” with registrar-trained volunteers in any registration drive.

Rex Dalton can be reached directly at rexdalton@aol.com.



Voting Rights to be Restored for Tens of Thousands of Felons in California

Check out the full article, by Malaika Fraley, on Contra Costa.

Alameda County Chief Probation Officer LaDonna M. Harris speaks as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, second from left, looks on during a news conference at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015. Padilla announced on Tuesday that he's dropping the appeal of Scott v. Bowen, clearing the way for 45,000 Californians who have been convicted of low-level felonies to get the right to vote. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

Alameda County Chief Probation Officer LaDonna M. Harris speaks as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, second from left, looks on during a news conference at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.  (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

5 August 2015 – OAKLAND – Los Angeles County probation Chief Jerry Powers said he hasn’t heard the question over allowing low-level felons to vote posed better than by his 12-year-old son: “Dad, what part of voting makes us less safe?”

“Only a 12-year-old can put it that way. There’s not a single part of allowing these individuals to vote that is going to make our society less safe,” Powers said Tuesday on the steps of an Oakland courthouse, where California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced the right to vote will soon be restored to tens of thousands of low-level felons in California serving out their sentences under the community supervision provisions of the state’s recent criminal justice reforms.

“If we are serious about slowing the revolving door at our jails and our prisons and serious about reducing recidivism, we need to engage, not shun, former offenders,” Padilla said. “And voting is a key part of that engagement. It is part of a process of becoming vested, having a stake in the community.”

Alameda County Judge Evelio Grillo ruled last year that offenders being supervised under the state’s Public Safety Realignment Act are eligible to vote under the California Constitution, thereby negating a 2011 decision by Padilla’s predecessor Debra Bowen that they had no voting rights.

Previously, it was only felons in prison or on parole who weren’t allowed to vote. When the realignment act passed in 2011 to integrate low-level offenders back into society and alleviate prison overcrowding, Bowen added the new category of offenders to the can’t-vote list, concluding that the supervision created under realignment was “functionally equivalent to parole,” and there was no evidence lawmakers had intended to let more convicts vote.

Dorsey Nunn, executive director of the Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, speaks as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla looks on during a news conference at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland on Aug. 4, 2015. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

Dorsey Nunn, executive director of the Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, speaks as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla looks on during a news conference at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland on Aug. 4, 2015. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

Voting and civil liberties groups sued and won, but Bowen filed an appeal before she termed out last year.

Padilla announced Tuesday that he’s abandoning an appeal he never believed in. He said he agrees with the judge that the secretary of state does not have the power to deny the right to vote to offenders who are no longer in prison or on parole but are being supervised under realignment.

“I believe it’s the right thing to do,” Padilla said. “Civic engagement and participation in the electoral process can be an important factor helping former offenders reintegrate into civil society.”

An estimated 58,000 people are serving out sentences under the realignment act, which includes people ineligible to vote because they’re either underage or noncitizens.

Padilla’s announcement came two days before the 50th anniversary of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that banned racial discrimination in voting.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks during a news conference at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland on Aug. 4, 2015.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks during a news conference at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland on Aug. 4, 2015. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)”

It is not lost on me that persons of color are disproportionately represented in correctional institutions and that undeniable disparities exist,” Padilla said. “It is not lost on me that many states in our nation are advancing legislation to roll back our voting rights, not just for former offenders but for all voters.”

Dorsey Nunn, who was released from prison over 30 years ago and now serves as the executive director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, one of the plaintiffs that challenged Bowen, said when one doesn’t have the right to vote, they question whether they are a full citizen.

“This vote that we are talking about is not just simply a vote that belongs to incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people,” Nunn said. “It’s a vote that belongs to our families, to our children, that was fought for and bled for by people of color. So, to me, today is an excellent day, and it’s an excellent start.”