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Jeffrey Blackman stood on a West Harlem street corner with a clipboard holding a thick stack of voter registration cards. It was 5 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, and the sidewalk was busy. He tried to make eye contact with each passerby; every time he succeeded, he asked the same question: "Are you registered to vote?" A few stopped, but most headed straight for the stairs leading into the 1/9 subway station.
Soon Blackman noticed George Echevarria, a wiry 27-year-old with a cigarette between his lips, slouching against the subway entrance.
"Are you registered to vote?" Blackman asked.
"No, I can't vote," Echevarria said. "I've got a felony."
Blackman hears this all the time, people insisting they can't vote because they've been locked up. Sometimes they're right, sometimes not. Blackman quizzed Echevarria and learned that he had come home from prison in 2003, then spent the next eight months reporting regularly to a parole officer.
"I finished parole already," Echevarria explained.
"Then you can vote," Blackman said. He slapped his clipboard atop the subway railing and handed Echevarria a pen. Echevarria had registered to vote at age 19, but after a drug conviction and a trip to state prison, he thought he'd never be able to vote again. He leaned over and filled in the blanks on the card, then handed back the clipboard.
For Blackman, this completed voter registration card was yet another victory in his campaign to convince ex-prisoners to exercise their voting rights. Blackman, 43, knows more about felony disenfranchisement laws than most people. He was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and then ran his own construction company, but a conviction for tax evasion took him to prison and now he can't vote until 2007, when he gets off parole.
Felon voting laws vary from state to state. Maine and Vermont are the only states that allow inmates to vote. Fourteen states permit people to vote as soon as they leave prison. Other states, like New York, restore voting rights once a person finishes parole. And seven states, including Florida and Mississippi, deny ex-prisoners the right to vote for the rest of their lives. The number of people who cannot vote because they have a felony conviction has been growing steadily over the last three decades as the nation's prison population has ballooned. Nearly 5 million people will not be able to vote in the upcoming election.
But the true number of people who are effectively disenfranchised is much greater, since many people who've been convicted of a felony haven't registered to vote because they mistakenly believe they've been stripped of this right.
"It's one of those urban legends that goes around about what happens to you as a result of being in the system," says Robin Templeton, executive director of the Right to Vote Campaign, a national organization working on behalf of ex-prisoners. "It goes back to the crazy maze of laws that we have." How many people are de facto disenfranchisednot voting because they think they can't? "The numbers are significant and absolutely incalculable," she says.
It's not just people convicted of a felony who are confused by these laws. It's election officials too. In the fall of 2002, a group of interns working at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law conducted a survey of local election boards in New York State. They telephoned the boards in all 62 counties. Workers at more than half gave out misinformation, insisting that people with felony records could not vote unless they provided certain documents.
Sometimes they asked for a letter from a parole officer; other times they requested paperwork that does not even exist. These demands violated New York State law, which stipulates that people automatically regain their voting rights as soon as they complete parole. The Brennan Center, along with two other advocacy groups, contacted the State Board of Elections about their findings.
In the fall of 2003, the Board of Elections distributed a memo to county commissioners clarifying the rules: "As you know, everyone who presents themselves to register . . . is presumed to be eligible and should be registered. . . . When the person whose eligibility is being questioned is an ex-felon, many of you are asking for documentation that they cannot provide. . . . Doing so has the effect of disenfranchising people, and we are in the business of enfranchising people."
Two months ago, the Prison Reform Advocacy Center, a nonprofit group in Ohio, conducted a similar survey. Ohio permits people to vote as soon as they leave prison, yet this survey, too, found that ex-prisoners were confronting additional barriers. Twenty-one of the state's 88 election boards gave out incorrect information. And in interviews with ex-prisoners conducted in a parole office waiting room in Cincinnati, almost half said they believed they could never vote again.
Felony disenfranchisement has been a particularly hot topic in Ohio in recent months, since Ohio is a crucial swing state in the upcoming presidential election. After completing its study, the Prison Reform Advocacy Center filed a lawsuit demanding that the state send letters to the 100,000 people released from Ohio prisons in the last five years, informing them of their right to vote.