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

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.

Mitchell, 43, a Democrat and Obama backer, is leading the effort in Tallahassee and has created an "Ex-Felon Targets" database to search for potential voters. He calls getting voter-registration cards to them a "passionate hobby."

"The majority of people to get their rights restored are Democrats, and if we get them registered, [we] might overtake the state," he said.

The Obama campaign isn't so sure. Mark Bubriski, the candidate's spokesman in Florida, said the felon vote "could certainly swing an election, but there are millions and millions of voters." Bubriski added that finding ex-offenders can be hard to do, and that "there's also the perception, for some reason, that they are all black and all Democrats, and that's certainly not the case."

For Mitchell, his effort to sign up felons is political and personal. Florida's ban was written into the state constitution after the Civil War, and regaining the right was nearly impossible for decades. Hundreds of thousands of clemency applicants were rejected, leaving nearly 1 million Floridians unable to vote in the 2004 presidential election, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.

The majority of felons in the state are white, and there are no studies on ex-offenders' party affiliation. Yet black men are disproportionately incarcerated and disproportionately disenfranchised, which Mitchell sees as a civil rights issue. Before the law changed, nearly a third of the state's black men were banned from voting, according to the Florida chapter of the ACLU.

"It kind of offended my notion of justice. You can serve your time and still have your rights taken away," said Mitchell, who is black. "I studied the history of black disenfranchisement in the state. We had the grandfather laws and the tissue-paper ballots. When a black man came to vote, they gave him a tissue-paper ballot that was later thrown out. There were lynchings and riots. We've got a long history of depriving people of the right to vote in Florida."

Mitchell left a personal-injury practice in 2004 to become Florida legal director for the nonprofit People for the American Way Foundation. Leading the liberal advocacy group's state voting rights project, he sent out news releases, lobbied politicians and, in 2006, marched to the statehouse with the ACLU and others, demanding that ex-offenders be allowed to vote.

Since the law was changed, the ACLU and People for the American Way have been reaching out to ex-offenders through Web sites that help people figure out whether the state has acted on their cases. Mitchell oversaw the project that helped build the foundation's Restore My Vote site ( http://www.restoremyvote.org).

Elizabeth Rhoden, 57, went to the site late last year, punched in her name and sat in her office crying with her dog Lopsy when she read that she had been cleared to vote. Rhoden, who is white, lost her right to vote when she was convicted of a drug charge in 1979.

The things she did when she was "young and stupid" have hung like a cloud over her life, she said, and for years she has been the lone Democrat in her family, complaining about the Bush administrations that have run the country and her state. In 2000, she volunteered for Al Gore's presidential campaign. In 2004, she worked on a committee to draft Gen. Wesley K. Clark. This year, she cast the first vote of her life -- for Obama in the Democratic primary.

"This has been a major, major thing in my heart," she said.

But visits to the Web sites have been inconsistent, and Mitchell thinks too much of the onus for getting the vote back has been on the felons. He feels called to help.

One hot Thursday, he folded his 6-foot-3 frame into his black Dodge Durango with the white Obama 'o8 bumper sticker. He had his salt-and-pepper goatee trimmed and wore a suit and leather shoes, as he does every day even though he is unemployed after losing his job in a downsizing at the end of June.

Mitchell was on his way to meet with Ion Sancho, election supervisor in Leon County, which includes Tallahassee. Sancho, who starred in an HBO documentary that questioned the reliability of electronic voting machines, is something of a local celebrity. Mitchell considers him an ally and told him about a St. Petersburg Times finding that only 8,200 ex-offenders have registered since the policy was changed, less than 10 percent of the number eligible.

"The information is not filtering to the people who need it," said Sancho, who worries that the governor's rule change has been stymied by a slow-moving, underfunded bureaucracy.

"It's catch as catch can as people learn about it," said Mitchell, who attended the historically black Florida A&M University on the city's south side. "If this country lawyer could figure this out, you mean the government couldn't do it?"

Next month, he and his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers will use his "Ex-Felon Targets" list to go door to door as part of its "a voteless people is a hopeless people campaign."

Until then, he is on his own. It was on his sixth call of a recent morning that Pompey picked up the phone.

Pompey drank and drugged for long stretches and cannot remember the last ballot he cast, but he and his wife, Carolyn, are Democrats and admirers of Obama's campaign because of its historic nature. Several months ago she told him, "We've got to get you registered to vote."

Even so, Pompey procrastinated after he received a letter from the state this summer telling him he now had his "rights restored."

"Not knowing what to do makes people not want to go do it," said Pompey, who is taking night classes at a community college and dreams of opening a Christian halfway house for ex-offenders. "You don't realize how far behind you are until you get back in the mainstream. Maybe fear, maybe procrastination just kind of paralyzed me, and I just didn't go forward with it."

Pompey came by Mitchell's nondescript office straight from work wearing mud-covered boots. He silently filled out the registration form, printing each word with care. Done, he said he felt free.

"Sometimes society has a way of wanting to continue to punish you," Pompey told Mitchell. "For me, [voting] is about coming full circle. For me, it's big."

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