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Election 2008: Registering Felons to Vote

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Krissah Williams Thompson
Washington Post Reporter
Monday, August 11, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post reporter Krissah Williams Thompson was online Monday, Aug. 11 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her article about Democratic activists working to inform and register Florida felons whose voting rights have been restored.

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The transcript follows.

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Krissah Williams Thompson: Good afternoon and thanks for your interest! Let's get going with a few questions...

By the way, if you're having trouble e-mailing me, my e-mail address williamsk@washpost.com.

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New York: This just seems like a horrifyingly bad idea from a political perspective. All the McCain campaign heeds to do is run a bunch of photos of black ex-felons with Obama stickers, and pow, Obama has lost a few swing states full of edgy white voters. Could these efforts in fact end up tilting votes away from the activists' favorite candidates?

Krissah Williams Thompson: Interesting point. Neither the Obama nor the McCain campaigns are targeting ex-felons. Both campaigns are undergoing massive voter registration drives and in some states ex-offenders are a large part of the potential new voter pool. Many of the activists who have been reaching out to felons believe the kind of political blow back you suggest is keeping the presidential candidates hands off.

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Republican Felons: Many felons may be Republicans because of social issues. Do the protagonists in your article pursue them with the same passion as if the felon is a probable Democratic voter?

Krissah Williams Thompson: The ACLU and People for the American Way Foundation are both nonpartisan and in Florida have set up Web sites that help ex-felons find out whether or not they can vote. No one assumes that all of the ex-offenders are Democrats but the thinking is that many are. In fact, the St. Petersburg Times actually looked at a pool of felons in Florida and found their voter registration records. The majority were Democrats.

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Indianapolis: Is it legal for felons to vote in Indiana? If so, how would one have access to register them?

Krissah Williams Thompson: The best repository for information on felony disenfranchisement laws is The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group in Washington. In March they published a report that lists the policies state-by-state. In Indiana, felons are only barred from voting while they are in prison. They can vote while on probation or parole.

By the way, every state sets its on policy and how those policies are enforced often depends on whose in the governor's chair.

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Slapshot46: Why not let all of China vote in our elections also? Maybe Space aliens could have a write-in vote. Felons know the rules before they break the law.

Krissah Williams Thompson: I've gotten a couple of comments implying that felons should be barred from voting for life. This is the debate that has been taking place over many years in many states. Florida is the most recent state to change its policy and allow felons to vote. Republican Gov. Charlie Crist led the rule change there. He argued that once people have paid their time (for non-violent felonies) they should have their rights restored.

This has been complicated in some places by widely diverging laws on what constitutes a felony. In Rhode Island, for example a woman who lost her jobs wrote bad checks, was convicted of a felony and denied the vote for life. She was the spokeswoman for the recent effort to get the law there changed.

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Criteria: What are the criteria for a former prisoner to regain the right to vote? What criteria would exclude someone from consideration?

Krissah Williams Thompson: Hi there. The criteria vary from state to state. In Florida, nonviolent felons can have their rights restored automatically if they have paid all of their restitution, are no longer on parole and have no charges pending. In Maine and Vermont there are no restrictions -- prisoners can vote in those states. In Virginia all ex-offenders must apply to the governor's office to get the vote back, which can be a long and difficult process.

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as901: How can we expect anyone to go straight if we punish criminals forever, regardless of their future actions? After a person serves their time, they should be given a chance to reform, and if after a couple of years they stay clean, they should have their rights restored.

If we punish people forever, what is their motive to obey a system that has rejected them forever? Now, before some right wing zealot yells, "if you had children you would feel different," I am a father and grandfather.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Lots of interesting comments coming in as people ponder the ethics of this topic. What do you think? Should an ex-offender be allowed to vote? Why or why not?

Here's one take...

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New York: The felons you are referring to here almost exclusively are nonviolent offenders. We can assume a large majority of them are drug offenders. As you are aware, and as you chose to leave out of your article, the drug laws in Florida and elsewhere have some interesting quirks. Among them, possession of powder cocaine remains a misdemeanor at five times the amount at which crack cocaine possession becomes a felony. As a result, you have racially disparate outcomes in terms of indictments and prosecutions for "felonies." But don't let the facts get in the way of some good ol' Republican fear-mongering, Krissah.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Here's another point, which didn't make it into the story but some of the activist I talked to also pointed out. In some places, many of the felony convictions are due to nonviolent drug offenses.

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Gotham: What next, votes for illegal aliens? Voting privileges while in prison? Voting is a right and a privilege. In some towns in upstate New York, felons are a majority of residents there. Should they be allowed to decide who their mayor and police chief should be?

Krissah Williams Thompson: I don't know about the facts here regarding towns in upstate New York, but here's a difference of opinion from a couple of the other posters.

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Kapmep : I have no problem restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time, including completion of periods of parole or probation. Seems like the fair thing to do. These voters overwhelmingly will vote Democratic, for obvious reasons. It's surprising that the Obama campaign and Democrats in general aren't playing a bigger part in getting the vote restored to ex-felons.

Krissah Williams Thompson: The efforts to register ex-felons have really taken off this election year so it is difficult to separate some activists suggestion that this is a civil rights issue and others efforts explicitly to help the Democratic candidate.

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Dionysis: I am unsure on this issue. When one's "debt to society" is paid, reason says welcome back but reality does not. I am torn on this one.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Lots of conflicting thoughts on the topic. Here's another one.

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Reston, Va.: Hello. In the article, it appears that this movement only is addressing black ex-felons. Is there a reason they actively are discriminating against other races?

Krissah Williams Thompson: There are some groups that are registering felons across the board. Reggie Mitchell, the activist that I profiled, is particularly interested in helping to register black felons in his community, which he explains in the story. I would say he is focusing on one community not "actively discriminating."

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jcbile: Criminals who have served their time almost always reoffend precisely because we continue to punish them after they have paid for their crime. Let's try another approach, one that Jesus Christ would have used: After they have served their sentence, we fully forgive them and restore all their rights. If you ever have been marginalized in a society, you know that the only thing you think about is fighting back. Get it?

Krissah Williams Thompson: Another comment. (I'll publish a couple more here.)

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Pacific Northwest: Just a comment -- I'm an ex-felon (convicted 30 years ago, for pot) and I vote. I'm not sure if I'm legal, though I have a "relief from disabilities" from two states and now live in a third state. Actually, I don't care if I'm "legal" or not. I pay my taxes, mow my lawn, clean my gutters and used to attend PTA meetings. Denying (now) law-abiding citizens the right to vote is about vengeance and voter-suppression -- it's the GOP of "law and order" that doesn't want us to vote because they know they're not getting our vote. I'm tired of walking around with a scarlet letter on my forehead for a nonviolent pot charge three decades ago. To hell with 'em -- file charges against me if you want. But no taxation without representation! We've had enough, and we're not taking it anymore.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Another comment. Thanks for writing in. Keep 'em coming.

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mediaskeptic: It's interesting that activist Mitchell compares the disenfranchisement of felons (!) to the historic disenfranchisement of blacks. I guess can conclude that our educational system's pushing of postmodern attitudes has robbed much of the public of any ability to discern how felons, black or any other color, neither deserve to vote nor have any particularly valuable platforms to back politically. Are they in favor not only of Obama but also of leniency for all misdemeanors and felonies, so that they can continue to prey on people? This all comes at the expense of law-abiding members of society.

Krissah Williams Thompson: More comments.

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PowerBoater69: Ahhhh, the old felon with a heart of gold story, makes me feel all warm inside. If these fine citizens don't help Obama win Virginia, nothing will.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Another comment.

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Norfolk, Va.: Ms. Thompson, I've been trying to e-mail you some information but unable to get an active e-mail as it states you are not listed. I am working on a continual basis with ex-offenders to get their voting rights back in the Hampton Roads Area, and I'm working very hard to change the process in Virginia. In Virginia there are two processes -- one for the nonviolent and one for violent offenders -- which have two different wait periods to get voting rights restored. I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your article, but this was the only way I could get to you. If you have an e-mail that I can reach you, I would like to share what we will be doing in Virginia. Thanks again for your important article on a problem that effects almost 300,000 people in Virginia. I appreciate you getting the word out.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Another comment on felony disenfranchisement in Virginia.

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Kensington, Md.: Aren't most people who are in our prison industry's Gulag system drug "offenders"? Given that drug addiction is a brain disease and not a legitimate crime, and we don't lock up people with diabetes, I'm glad these unjustly imprisoned people are getting their rights back. Thank you for doing this article.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Thanks for reading.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: If they could, do you think Democrats would register prisoners at Guantanamo?

Krissah Williams Thompson: Posting this question to show the range of feeling on the topic. I'll mention again that neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party is involved officially with the grassroots groups I wrote about.

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Washington: Thanks for a great article on an underdiscussed question. The year I graduated from college, the guy who got summa cum laude for his senior thesis (at Cornell) did a survey of state legislators on felon disenfranchisement laws. He found that the majority of lawmakers didn't even realize such rules were on the books, not to mention their specifics and variations across states.

Krissah Williams Thompson: This is an interesting point. Most of these laws have been around since post-Civil War reconstruction. It has been in the last decades that many of the laws have changed, allowing a larger number of ex-felons to vote.

Alabama is an interesting case. The ACLU recently filed suit there because the state constitution denies the right to vote only to felons who have violated an ancient, abstract "moral turpitude" clause.

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Felons Voting Democratic: I'm not so sure most felons would vote Democratic. Has there been scholarly research on this topic?

Krissah Williams Thompson: There are no large studies on how felons vote -- only assumptions and the recent report I mentioned in The St. Petersburg Times that outlines how Florida felons have registered so far this year.

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Alexandria, Va.: If ex-cons are working and paying taxes, then they should have the right to vote.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Here's our final comment.

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Krissah Williams Thompson: Thanks for the lively discussion. I enjoyed chatting with you guys.

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eaglechik: Why aren't there any (besides my own) comments on what Gov. Crist (a Republican) did in Florida to facilitate this effort? I am only asking because of the amount of comments on how this is intrinsically tied to the Democrats.

Krissah Williams Thompson: Here's one last comment. Indeed, reforming felony voting laws has been a bipartisan effort in recent years. On the grassroots level, it's civil rights and Democratic activists that are leading the voter registration drives. Cheers, and bye.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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