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Getting the vote back

Local groups push to expand voting rights for convicted felons

Former felon Desmond Meade (center) registers to vote with his wife Sheena (right) in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 19, 2020. Associated Press/Photo by John Raoux, File

Getting the vote back

Brian Fullman voted for the first time in the 2006 Minnesota gubernatorial election. He remembers filling in the bubbles on the paper ballot and the feeling of the machine snatching it out of his hand. A man sitting at a table stopped him on his way out to hand him his first red and white “I voted” sticker. But Fullman wasn’t sure his vote would count.

Fullman grew up on Chicago’s South Side and went to jail for two years for selling drugs at 19. Illinois law allowed convicted felons to vote after completing their full sentence. He later moved to Minnesota, which had a similar law. But Fullman, unfamiliar with these laws, thought he’d lost his rights forever. His uncertain visit to the polls in 2006 was the only time he voted during the first 22 years after his release.

That all changed when his pastor invited him to an event at the Minnesota State Capitol, where one of the speakers addressed voting rights. “Somebody as clear as day said, ‘Some of you probably don’t think you can vote because you’ve been to jail. But did you know if you’re off probation or parole, you can actually go vote?’” Fullman was stunned.

He voted again—confidently, this time—in the 2016 presidential election. “It felt so liberating,” he said. “For the first time, I felt like I was a part of society.”

A barber by profession, Fullman has since worked to expand voting rights for convicted felons still on probation and parole. He joined a community advocacy organization, visited churches and knocked on doors to invite people to committee hearings, and recorded Facebook Live videos explaining the legislative process.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed House File 28 on March 3, granting an estimated 55,000 felons on parole or probation the right to vote.

As of 2022, an estimated 4.6 million Americans—roughly 2 percent of the voting age population—cannot vote due to laws that bar former felons from the electoral process. Many grassroots initiatives across the country are pushing to restore voting rights to convicted felons. As more states consider following in the footsteps of Minnesota and other states, the efforts of these grassroots groups raise questions about when and if a person should lose their right to vote—and whether they should get a second chance.

Minnesota is now one of 22 states where felons only lose their voting rights while they are incarcerated. Lawmakers in other states are debating similar measures.

The New Mexico Voting Rights Act would give felons the right to vote as soon as they leave custody. Currently, New Mexico is one of the 15 states where felons lose their right to vote until they complete the terms of their sentence, including parole and probation, and, in some cases, outstanding fines and fees.

In Nebraska, state Sen. Justin Wayne, a Democrat, introduced a measure in January that would remove a two-year waiting period and give ex-felons the right to vote when they complete their sentence.

Eleven states disenfranchise felons indefinitely for certain crimes or require an additional waiting period, a governor’s pardon, or other additional action. Kentucky has one of the strictest voting bans for former felons. More than 160,000 Kentuckians with felony records cannot vote, even after an executive pardon restored rights to 170,000 nonviolent felons in 2019. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow voters to approve or reject a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most felons once they complete their sentences.

In Florida, Desmond Meade put about 50,000 miles on his car annually for several years, trying to garner support for a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to most convicted felons once they completed their sentences. Meade, the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, met with people in barber shops, coffee houses, and churches to get the almost 800,000 signatures they needed to put the amendment on the ballot.

Voters approved the amendment in 2018 by nearly 65 percent, allowing ex-felons, including Meade, to vote. Meade voted in his first presidential primary election in 2020—the first time he had voted in over 30 years. “This country, just by nature, is a country of second chances,” he said. He hopes to take the effort further: “I don’t think anyone should ever lose the right to vote.”

Only in Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia do felons never lose their right to vote. Incarcerated felons may fill out an absentee mail request to vote in their previous place of residence. In February, a California legislator proposed a state constitutional amendment that would allow felons in custody to vote. Two-thirds of each legislative chamber must approve the measure before it appears on the ballot. Voters approved an amendment granting parolees suffrage in 2020. Lawmakers in Oregon and Illinois have proposed bills allowing incarcerated felons to vote.

Zack Smith is a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Florida. “This is fundamentally a state’s decision,” he said. But Smith argued it makes sense for a state government to require ex-felons to complete the terms of their sentence before their rights are restored. “The idea is that they have completely paid their debt to the community and successfully reintegrated into society,” he said. In many states, felons who violate their parole or probation could return to prison.

Charles Lehman, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said rules should consider what kind of crime was committed and how much of their sentence a convicted felon has completed. “If you’re serving a punishment for a crime, then you probably shouldn’t be voting while you do it,” he said.

But Kate Trammell, vice president of advocacy at Prison Fellowship, disagrees. “We see that it is not uncommon for men and women to be transformed, to experience redemption,” Trammell said. “With those things in mind, we are very supportive of automatic restoration of voting rights post-release.” She argued that restoring rights through executive privilege or an onerous petition process can also keep people from voting. “As people engage in a healthy civic life, that incentivizes the kind of behavior that we all want to see from our neighbors,” she said, emphasizing neighbors who are restarting their lives.

Samuel Perez voted for the first time in November 2016. After serving time as a juvenile while a ward of the state, Perez also spent about seven years in prison as an adult. In his state of Virginia, former felons can only vote by executive action. At the time, an executive order allowed Perez to vote once he completed his sentence and paid off about $10,000 in fines and fees.

“I was expected to pay taxes, I was expected to be a law abiding citizen … but I wasn’t granted the same rights,” Perez said. He applied online and got his rights restored. “It really felt like I was a citizen again,” he said. He now works as a grassroots director for Prison Fellowship.

Former inmates encounter over 44,000 legal barriers to reentry that touch almost every area of life. “We want to facilitate the successful transition from prison to our communities for people who are being released,” said Perez.

In 2022, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin followed his predecessor’s example and restored voting rights to over 3,400 felons not currently in custody.

In Minnesota, Fullman watched Gov. Walz sign HF 28 into law with about 100 others in the Minnesota Revenue Building on March 3. Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman presented him with her pen after adding her signature. “It was a beautiful, beautiful occasion,” he said. “Everything I do in Minnesota is with the hopes that we do it nationally.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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