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 disenfranchised—not 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.
What’s the point of giving ex-cons the right to vote, since they don’t vote anyway? It’s one of those questions one often hears in conversations about voting rights—and it functions as a pat explanation for why one need not worry too much about this issue. But is it true that ex-cons don’t vote? Ernest Drucker, an epidemiologist at Montefiore Medical Center, tried to find out.
In recent months, he and several colleagues interviewed current and former prisoners in Ohio, New York, and Connecticut. They found that, contrary to widespread assumptions, these people registered and voted at rates comparable to the general population prior to going to prison.
There is a difference in voting patterns, however, after these individuals regain their voting rights. At this point, the researchers found a 36 percent decline in registration rates. Misinformation about the laws seems to explain this drop. In Connecticut, when ex-prisoners who were eligible to vote were asked if they had this right, 57 percent said “No” or “I don’t know.” —J.G.
One local board of elections did actually send out letters to ex-prisoners, but this letter only added to the confusion. “We have recently received notification that your voter registration must be cancelled for the following reason: The voter has been convicted of a felon,” stated the letter, which dropped the y from felony. “If you feel that our records are in error, please contact this office as soon as possible.” The letter, sent out by the Summit County Board of Elections, which covers Akron, did not inform the recipient that he could re-register and vote.
On September 21, Molly Wieser, an Ohio activist, marched into the Summit County Board of Elections, accompanied by several ex-prisoners from New York City who had come to the state to register voters. The officials they met with offered to amend the letter, but, according to Wieser, they did not seem to consider the matter urgent. “They’re not deeply unpleasant people,” says Wieser, who runs a prisoners’ rights group in Cleveland called the Racial Fairness Project. “They just are not too concerned about doing anything quickly to remedy an issue they don’t consider to be an emergency.”
Wieser contacted Singleton, and he filed another lawsuit. On September 28, a federal judge ordered the Summit County Board of Elections to send out another letter, informing ex-inmates that they were in fact eligible to vote. The letter went out to 1902 people. Even a seemingly small act like sending out a second, clearer letter can make a difference in a close election. Few people have forgotten that in 2000 George W. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes.
The number of words being written on the subject of felony disenfranchisement—in newspaper articles, statewide surveys, lawsuits, advocacy group reports, scholarly articles—has grown rapidly in recent months as the presidential election nears. One of the most interesting contributions to this literature was a 22-page article in the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, published by the University of Virginia School of Law. The article analyzed the ripple effect of felon voting laws—not just on people who’ve been convicted of a felony, but on their neighbors, friends, and family members, too.
The authors found that the probability of voting was equal among blacks and whites who were eligible to vote and who lived in states with the least restrictive felony disenfranchisement laws. But in states with the most restrictive laws, there was a notable difference: Participation among eligible blacks dropped by about 8 percent. The article contends that this discovery shows “the damage that criminal disenfranchisement laws . . . have on social networks and their ability to encourage non-disenfranchised individuals to exercise their right to vote.”
These findings did not surprise Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, who has written numerous reports on felon voting rights. “Voting is sort of this communal experience,” he says. “Husbands and wives go to the polls together. Neighbors talk about it and go out and do it together. So if you have fewer people who are eligible to participate, then you have less discussion and activity around it. It would make sense that it would depress overall turnout.”
Jeffrey Blackman was one of the ex-prisoners from New York who marched into the Summit County Board of Elections in Ohio in late September. The executive director of the Fortune Society, a Manhattan nonprofit that helps ex-prisoners, had taken him and 10 other people to Ohio to register voters. Once they got back, Blackman and other Fortune Society clients took to the streets, trying to sign up voters in West Harlem.
Blackman grew up on West 126th Street, and he says his parents were civil rights activists who always voted. By making the trip to Ohio, and then signing up voters on the sidewalks of Harlem, Blackman is continuing their work—and fighting to stop a culture of nonvoting from taking root in neighborhoods like this one. On a recent afternoon, he glanced down at his clipboard and reviewed the voter registration cards he’d collected. “Like my father said, if you want to be heard, voting is the way,” he said.