As an Oregonian, the only thing that kept Lloyd Allen from voting was incarceration. Like millions of other citizens, Allen was convicted of a non-violent drug offense – a felony that sent him behind bars for over a year.
But after her release from prison on felony charges, Denise Welch, a resident of Washington State, was forced through a maze of requirements so complex, even local elections officials didn't know how it worked.
In Oregon, as soon as an offender is released, he or she is allowed to vote. In many other states, people with a felony conviction face a much tougher set of circumstances.
Some states require a waiting period after release, others ban offenders from the voting booth for life.
The result is that, despite Oregon's inclusive voting policy, thousands of ex-offenders still believe they're not eligible to vote.
"They've been told they can't vote," says Allen, who volunteered much of his time in Northeast Portland this year registering voters. "It comes from people feeling like they have low self-esteem from being in prison and jail. They don't feel like they're part of society."
That's exactly the kind of sentiment that Carole Scholl is trying to overcome. A manager at The Londer Learning Center, she and others at the center held a voter education class on Oct. 23 for ex-offenders.
The center helps those with felony convictions earn their GED and move on to either college or other job training, and they're one of the only programs in the country that help felons learn the basics of voting.
"Ninety percent of the students here didn't know they could vote," Scholl said.
Many states severely restrict the right of people with felony convictions the right to vote. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow current prisoners to vote. The complexity in the law is not only confusing for people convicted of crimes – many of whom never finished high school – it's also confusing to elections officials.
A study released at the beginning of October revealed the extent of ignorance among America's elections office workers. The report, titled "DeFacto Disenfranchisement" by Rachel Bloom and Erika Wood of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, revealed that most elections workers in the 15 states they surveyed have either no knowledge or gave wrong answers concerning felony voter laws; Oregon was the only state in which 100 percent of those surveyed knew the right answers.
While over 5 million Americans permanently lose their right to vote because of felon voter disenfranchisement laws, the study says millions more are given the illusion they cannot vote, by either word on the street or bad information given out by government officials.
One has to look no further than the State of Washington to see the problem.
Denise Welch of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, a Portland-based nonprofit that advocates for smarter policies for the criminal justice system, says she was mislead by an official in the Washington State Department of Justice. Welch has a felony on her record and was given bogus information about when she was allowed to cast a vote.
According to the ACLU report, "Once a single local election official misinforms a citizen that he is not eligible to vote because of a past conviction, it is unlikely that citizen will ever follow up or make a second inquiry."
Welch was forced to do her own research into how to regain her right to vote. In Washington, you must be released from supervision and have met all the terms of your sentence, such as completion of community service and payment of all fines and fees in full.
| Voting By the Numbers |
• Estimated Number of People Who Cannot Vote in America – 5.3 million; of those, 2,000,290 are African American, making 13 percent of Black men unable to vote (The Sentencing Project);
• The ACLU found many elections officials in some states outright hostile to even assisting a felon find the information to regain their civil rights (Defacto Disenfranchisement);
• Many disenfranchisement laws originated in the Jim Crow South, where the most repressive felon voter laws still remain on the books;
• One in every 100 adults is behind bars in America, leading the world as the most prolific jailer of people in history. From the 1970s to the present, prison populations increased nearly seven-fold, from about 200,000 to 2.3 million.
If all these criteria are met at the time post-prison supervision is complete, an ex-offender is typically issued a Certificate of Discharge, restoring that individual's civil rights. Sometimes, the certificate is not issued, and requires an individual to petition the court.
But if your conviction was not in a Washington court, the fight to vote is more complicated.
If it was in another state court, the laws governing your right to vote in that state transfer to Washington, although you can petition the Clemency and Pardons Board to restore your voting rights. You must also contact the state in which your conviction was based. The same rules apply to federal convictions.
And what happens if you even attempt to vote before being granted back your rights? Another class C felony for even registering to vote – punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Those who want to restrict voting rights for felons say that once a person has been convicted of a crime, they have given up their right to take part in society.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, retains the position that those who break the law lack the fitness to have a say in the way it is crafted. The foundation's Todd Goziano has even said felons might even form an anti-law enforcement voting bloc as an argument against allowing felons the right to vote.
By contrast, the ACLU report argues that restoring voting rights to all citizens helps ex-offenders reintegrate and feel like they have a stake in their community.
Back in Oregon, Leilani Ness says she's grateful to live in a state that allows felons the right to vote. Ness is a student at Londer Learning Center who was convicted of drug felonies. She says her life is already difficult enough without a high school diploma and the felonies that inhibit her ability to find housing and employment.
"I don't feel like I'm a criminal," she says, who only found herself in the crosshairs of the law because she was a drug addict.
Now Ness has a 15-month-old daughter, and voting for the issues that will affect her is very important. She's adamant about Measure 58 – the proposal would limit non-English language speakers' access to ESL education – because her daughter is half Hispanic.
She also sees Kevin Mannix's Measure 61 as step in the wrong direction – it would make certain non-violent drug crimes, as well as some property crimes, punishable by strict mandatory minimum sentences for first-time offenders.
As Ness filled out her ballot, she said she felt like she was part of society. If she couldn't vote, she says she'd be devastated.
"I would feel extremely angry and righteous," she says. "It would feel like a fundamental right was taken away."