For Those Once Behind Bars, A Nudge to the Voting Booth

Headshot of Reggie Mitchell, the central figure in a story about outreach to ex-offenders who can now vote in Florida.
Headshot of Reggie Mitchell, the central figure in a story about outreach to ex-offenders who can now vote in Florida. (Courtesy Of Reggie Mitchell - Courtesy Of Reggie Mitchell)
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By Krissah Williams Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008

TALLAHASSEE -- Herbert Pompey had gone through rehab, stayed sober, held a job, married and started a landscaping business in the two years since he walked out of Taylor Correctional Institution. But what Pompey hadn't done -- and what he assumed a string of felony drug and DUI convictions would keep him from ever doing again -- was vote.

So his pulse quickened when civil rights lawyer Reggie Mitchell called to tell him that his rights had been restored.

"You're eligible to vote now, Mr. Pompey," Mitchell said, calmly relaying the news. "Can I bring you a voter-registration card?"

Pompey whispered, "Lord, you was listening."

Mitchell smiled -- he had gotten another felon back on the rolls.

Mitchell is a leader of a disparate group of grass-roots Democrats and civil rights activists who are trying to register tens of thousands of newly eligible felons. They have taken up the cause on their own, motivated by the belief that former offenders have been unfairly disenfranchised for decades. Despite massive registration efforts, the presidential campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have not designated anyone to go after the group.

In Alabama, Al Sharpton's younger brother, the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, will take his "Prodigal Son" ministry into state prisons with voter-registration cards for the first time. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed suit there and in Tennessee to make it possible for an even larger class of felons to register. In Ohio, the NAACP will hold a voter-registration day at the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland this month to register "people caught up in the criminal justice system," a local official said. In California, a team will stand in front of jails on Aug. 16 to register people visiting prisoners and encourage them to take registration cards to their incarcerated friends or family members, some of whom can legally vote.

"This is a voting block that has never been open before, and it has opened up at such a time as this," said Glasgow, who was a felon himself.

In Florida, a law change last year made more than 115,000 felons eligible to vote, according to the state Parole Commission. In other states, civil rights and criminal justice groups estimate there are similar numbers who have not registered.

All but two states -- Maine and Vermont -- limit voting rights for people with felony convictions. Some felons are banned from voting until they have completed parole and paid restitution, others for life. Kentucky and Virginia have the most restrictive laws, denying all felons the right to vote, though Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has encouraged nonviolent offenders to apply to have their rights restored.

Generally, though restoring voting rights has hit resistance from all directions. Not wanting to appear soft on crime, Democratic and Republican leaders have not aggressively pursued the issue. In Florida, black state legislators led the fight for a decade before populist Republican Gov. Charlie Crist pushed through the change shortly after being elected in 2006. The legislation permits many nonviolent felons to vote as long as they have no charges pending, have paid restitution and have completed probation.

But getting the ex-offenders registered has been a slow process.

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