A convicted felon in Maine can vote from prison while a felon in Florida may never vote again, illustrating dramatically different state rules. In South Dakota, Eileen Janis, who was convicted of a theft but served no time in jail, was allowed to vote only after election officials learned the state laws, which can be confusing. Produced by Alia Conley and Emily Nohr, News21.
From a continuing series of articles, Who Can Vote?, a News21 investigation of voting rights in America. Read the full series.
By Maryann Batlle and Carl Straumsheim
Discuss this series of stories on the Facebook page for Open Channel, the NBC News investigative blog.
Josh and Katy Vander Kamp met in drug rehab. In the seven years since, they have been rebuilding their lives in Apache Junction, Ariz., a small town east of Phoenix.
He’s a landscaper; she’s studying for a master’s degree in addictions counseling. They have two children, a dog and a house. Their lives reveal little of their past, except that Katy can vote and Josh can’t because he’s a two-time felon.
She’s been arrested three times, but never convicted of a felony. By age 21, Josh was charged with two — for a drug-paraphernalia violation and possessing a burglary tool.
“I didn’t do anything that he didn’t do, and he’s paying for it for the rest of his life,” Katy said.
With voting laws a heated issue this election year as civil rights groups and state legislatures battle over photo ID requirements in this election year, felon disenfranchisement laws have attracted less attention despite the potential votes at stake.
A patchwork of restrictions in every state but Maine and Vermont keep about 5.85 million Americans with felony convictions off voting rolls, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., criminal justice reform advocacy group. The report also suggests that some races are hit by these laws more than others.
A felon in Maine can vote from prison using an absentee ballot, while a felon convicted of the same crime in Florida, the state with the highest percentage of disenfranchised African Americans in the nation, might never regain the right to vote — even after release.
People convicted of more than one felony in Arizona lose gun ownership and voting rights until a county court restores them. Josh Vander Kamp’s first attempt at regaining his rights failed last year.
With his wife’s help, Josh Vander Kamp applied to the county court that sentenced him in both cases. About three months later he was rejected. Vander Kamp said he’s not sure why his past is still a problem.
“It’s over and done with. I’ve put it behind me. I wish other people would put it behind them,” he said.
Who can vote? A national News21 investigation of voting rights in America.
Laws vary widely on how felons lose their voting rights and how states restore them.
In Mississippi, 22 categories of crime result in disenfranchisement. Timber larceny is on the list; manslaughter is not. Felons who want their voting rights back must be approved by a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature, and the governor can sign or veto it.
Until 2007, Maryland disenfranchised people convicted of misdemeanors involving corruption or fraud. Alabama denies the vote to anyone convicted of distributing pornography, even if it depicts consenting adults.
Pennsylvania felons can register to vote when they are released from prison. Kentucky felons must apply to the governor.
Reform advocates see voting as a symbolic key step to returning felons to communities.
“When people are punished for crimes that they’ve committed, that should not involve forfeiting their basic rights of citizenship, which is what felony disenfranchisement does,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.
The group estimates that 75 percent of disenfranchised felons are no longer incarcerated.
Allen Jenkins, a black resident of Nashville, Tenn., was released in 1996 after serving one year for a drug charge. Jenkins, 51, still hasn’t regained his voting rights.
“I’m a U.S. citizen,” Jenkins said. “I should be able to vote for whoever I want and to give my opinion.”
Across the country, racial minorities are more likely to be barred from voting because of felony convictions, reform advocates say. Blacks made up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, but 37.9 percent of the more than 1.5 million people in federal and state prisons, according to data from the Census and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“Much of it involves the fact that law enforcement agencies have targeted low-income communities of color in particular … often to the exclusion of more well-off communities where drug use and drug selling may be more likely to take place behind closed doors or where there’s less efforts made to address drug-selling activity,” Mauer said.
Click on the photo to see a News21 slideshow of felons seeking voting rights. They've served time for the crimes they committed. They paid restitution and all other costs. Still, their path to restored voting rights is filled with obstacles. There's no national standard for restoring a felon's voting rights.
In Tennessee, drug offenders were about 16 percent of the inmate population in 2010-11, according to the state Department of Correction.
Nonviolent felons in Tennessee can apply to have their voting rights restored, but the felony charge remains on their records even if their application is approved. As of July 1, one-time felons also can restore their rights by expunging the charge from their records.
Jenkins, a single father of two, has struggled financially since his conviction. He thought a clean record could help him find a job, which is why he will apply to expunge the drug conviction, he said.
“I should not be condemned over something I’ve done in the past when that past is dead,” Jenkins said.
Supporters of disenfranchisement laws said the policies preserve the integrity of the American legal system by stopping people who might choose to undermine it with their votes.
“If you are unwilling to follow the law, then you can’t demand a right to make the law for everyone else, and that’s what you’re doing when you vote,” said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Falls Church, Va., Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank on issues of ethnicity and race.
Voting rights should be restored case by case, Clegg said, and only after felons can prove they’ve “turned over a new leaf.”
The governors in Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia have the last say when determining who that might be.
After taking office in January 2011, Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad revoked the automatic restoration process established by former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.
Iowa’s application process has drawn complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union and felons who want to vote. Applicants must submit a criminal history, a credit report and pay all fines and court fees to regain voting rights.
David Christian, 33, owes $155,000 in restitution related to a 2008 voluntary manslaughter charge. He’s paid $941 of it in nine months. The Iowa City resident, who lives with his parents and works full-time at the family store, said it will be difficult for him to pay his debt.
“I will be disenfranchised for the foreseeable future, maybe a few decades, because I can’t pay restitution,” he said.
Christian, who is on parole until May 2013, filed to have his rights restored though he knew he was ineligible. His rejection letter came in the mail June 25.
He registered to vote when he was 18, and last voted during the 2008 presidential election while he was a pretrial detainee. Christian said he feels like a second-class citizen now.
“I want to be able to have a voice,” Christian said.
Branstad has approved the only 10 applications that crossed his desk between December 2011 and May 15, according to Larry Johnson, deputy legal counsel for the Iowa Governor’s Office. Johnson said three other applications were returned because they were incomplete.
Felons in Florida must apply to the state Board of Executive Clemency — Gov. Rick Scott and his three-person Cabinet — after they have completed their sentences, paid restitution and waited five or seven years, depending on the offense.
Scott tightened the state’s policy in March 2011 and has approved dramatically fewer applications than his predecessors, Republican Govs. Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, who both streamlined the process.
Between 2011 and early July, 188 felons regained their rights, according to the Florida Parole Commission. But a backlog of 21,197 applications as of July 1 means Florida felons who have completed their sentences could wait a decade or more for a decision.
Humberto Aguilar, a Cuban-born Miami resident who applied in 2005, is still waiting.
Aguilar, an attorney for drug smugglers in the 1980s, was indicted for tax evasion and drug crimes. He fled and was a fugitive in Europe before being extradited to face the charges.
He returned to South Florida as a parolee in 2000. After working at hotels and a non-profit, Aguilar became a money-laundering consultant.
It’s been about seven years since he applied to become a “whole human being again.”
“If you cannot participate in the everyday political life of this country, you are like an 1840s slave. You have no rights,” Aguilar said.
Unlike Branstad and Scott, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has made voting rights restoration easier. He campaigned on a promise to process applications within three months, but completes the work in 60 days. Under former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, restoration could take up to one year.
McDonnell has restored the rights of about 3,000 Virginians during his first two years in office, signing off on nearly nine of every 10 applications. Kaine approved a record 4,402 applications over four years. McDonnell is on track to surpass that number.
Richard W. Walker, 54, regained his rights under McDonnell after a 2004 drug conviction. The prospect of getting his rights back inspired him to beat a 40-year addiction, Walker said.
While in rehabilitation in 2007, Walker met McDonnell, then Virginia’s attorney general. Walker said McDonnell promised to personally hand his application to Kaine.
“I knew at that time I was done with drugs and alcohol,” Walker said.
McDonnell restored Walker’s rights in April, and in December, Walker will mark five years of sobriety. He now heads Bridging the Gap in Virginia, a nonprofit that helps felons readjust to society.
Felon disenfranchisement has an impact on the national political debate, said Christopher Uggen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the lead researcher for The Sentencing Project report.
“Whether it’s welfare reform or whether it is progressive taxation or whether it is the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, each of those issues is going to be decided without the voices of six million people who are disproportionately poor, disproportionately persons of color,” Uggen said.
The 1985 Supreme Court decision in Hunter v. Underwood held that Alabama’s felon disenfranchisement law was intended to remove blacks and poor whites from voter rolls, and established a high bar for suits that allege racial discrimination, said Louis Seidman, a Georgetown University professor of constitutional law.
“In this particular case it was much easier because these people just got up... on the floor of the legislature and said, ‘This is a way to prevent blacks from voting,’ and nobody who is around today is that unsubtle,” Seidman said.
Legislation that would create a national standard also has failed in Congress. Democrats introduced the Voter Empowerment Act of 2012, which proposes sweeping changes in how federal elections are conducted and would let felons who are out of prison vote in federal elections.
In 2011, President Barack Obama said the Department of Justice has the “capacity and the obligation” to monitor states’ felon-disenfranchisement laws to make sure they are not “purposely exclusionary.”
“One of the strengths of America has always been that this is a land of second chances,” Obama said.
But states’ rights advocates disagree.
“The 14th Amendment of the Constitution makes it very clear that states have the ability to remove the voting rights of individuals who have been convicted of rebellion or other crime,” said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., conservative public policy research institute.
Meanwhile, these laws can change rapidly, through an executive order as in Iowa — or the process could take longer.
Rhode Island voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2006 to give parolees and probationers voting rights.
Felon volunteers and their advocates spent about two years door-knocking, lobbying and campaigning to “change hearts and minds,” said Sol Rodriguez, executive director of OpenDoors, a Providence, R.I., nonprofit that provides re-entry services for felons and led the voting rights effort.
The voting rights of 17,606 Rhode Islanders were restored and 6,330 of them registered to vote by the 2008 general election, according to OpenDoors.
When Jaleeza Oliver, 20, was released in May, she went to OpenDoors to sign up for services. When asked if she’d like to register to vote, Oliver said yes.
“It makes me feel I’m more part of the community rather than being rejected because of a record,” she said.
Andrea Rumbaugh, Jeremy Knop, Alissa Skelton and Michael Ciaglo contributed to this article. Maryann Batlle was an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation fellow this summer at News21. American Public Media’s Public Insight Network contributed to this article.
Discuss this series of stories on the Facebook page for Open Channel, the NBC News investigative blog.