Should American citizens who have been convicted of crimes and served their time have their right to vote restored?

From left: 2 Chainz, Kanye West, Rosci and Terrence J in New York City in April. Rapper 2 Chainz has his voting rights after a conviction on drug possession when he was 15. (Craig Barritt/GETTY IMAGES)

The rapper 2 Chainz, made the case for the vote at a pre-show stop at the Urban League of Central Carolinas in Charlotte on Saturday. He told his story for 40 young people, a few with criminal records. The 35-year-old Atlanta-based performer said he was first arrested at age 15 for cocaine possession. When it came to voting, he thought he was “counted out” and didn’t know he was eligible until he picked up a brochure at a registration drive at an Atlanta mall. Along with 10 friends, he recruited from his recording studio, “I walked around with a sticker the whole day” they voted.

“I felt rejuvenated,” he said. “I felt like a citizen again.”

To supporters, restoring voting rights to former felons is a logical and positive step, a way to give them a stake in the world outside prison walls. That was the point of the weekend workshop organized by the Washington-based Hip-Hop Caucus and its “Respect My Vote” campaign, a nonpartisan mobilization and education effort focused particularly on young voters.  

Denying former felons the vote, “ultimately denies rights to a class of people based on previous actions,” according to William Harding, a Charlotte attorney, who also spoke at the even. “Once a person has paid his debt to society, it’s important that he is integrated back into society,” he told me. The ex-inmates are more involved, Harding said, and their recidivism rate is lower.

He explained that in North Carolina, anyone who completes all parts of a sentence for a felony conviction, including probation and parole, can register to restore the voting right that was lost, though it is a crime to register before the sentence is completed. Those convicted of a misdemeanor do not lose their right to vote.

The law puts North Carolina somewhere between Maine and Vermont, where felons never lose their voting rights, and states such as Kentucky and Virginia, which require the governor to approve an application. (In Virginia, GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell has stepped up the pace to restore rights.) In some states, only the most serious crimes are punished with permanent disenfranchisement.

Because the courts have determined voting is a fundamental rather than constitutional right, Harding said, it’s left up to the states, and he thinks that’s wrong. “It’s not as though they’re somehow going to taint the process,” he said. “Ultimately, the laws affect them, too.”

The issue can be used to label an opponent soft on crime, as Republican Rick Santorum found out in the primaries when a Mitt Romney Super PAC ad attacked – and in Santorum’s view, distorted -- his position advocating voting rights for ex-felons who completed their obligations. At a debate before the South Carolina primary, Santorum challenged Romney and pointed out the former Massachusetts governor’s once similar stance. Romney answered that he governed a largely Democratic electorate then, and stated his current view that “people who committed violent crimes should not be able to vote, even upon coming out of office."

It’s an issue with a racial dimension, as African American men are disproportionately affected. In her 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander places current policy – including a  disparity in prosecution and sentencing rates, particularly for drug-related offenses -- within a history of America’s disenfranchisement of African American voters. The University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law released an analysis this week that counted more than 2,000 people in the United States who were falsely convicted of serious crimes and then exonerated in the past 23 years. The universities used their archive to study the details of 873 of those exonerations. Nine out of 10 in that group were men, and half were African American.

On Saturday, Brandi Williams, the Hip Hop Caucus Charlotte coordinator, recited statistics from the nonprofit Sentencing Project that showed lower N.C. registration and voting rates among those with felony convictions. It’s “not good for democracy,” she said.

In a close 2012 presidential election, when every vote in swing states such as North Carolina promises to be crucial, both parties are concerned about the issue. In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials last year rolled back the 2007 rule change by then-GOP Gov. Charlie Crist that made it easier for many ex-felons to regain the right to vote. Now even nonviolent offenders have to wait five years before applying for the chance to have their rights restored. "It clearly has the effect of suppressing the vote as we go into a presidential election cycle," Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Washington Post then.

Participants at the Charlotte event could fill out registration forms and a “Respect My Vote” pledge, which included space to list the issues they care about. Patrick Graham, executive director of the Urban League of Central Carolinas, said the event was not to advocate for any candidate or position, but to emphasize the message “to never let your past determine your future.” He made the Urban League’s computer lab and resources available for anyone to research candidates and issues.

Graham said some with past felony convictions are too willing to give away their voting rights. “They don’t look on them as a priority.” He told the workshop participants, “It’s so important you follow through with this.”

At first, 23-year-old Dimitros Jordan said he was turned off by politics. “Nothing is really going to change,” he said, preferring to “put it in God’s hands.” After attending a question-and-answer session in which some pointed out that it was civic action that led to charges for George Zimmerman after he shot Florida teen Trayvon Martin, Jordan changed his mind. He served five months as a teenager for armed robbery, he said, but now works in construction and coaches children in summer camp. Jordan said he is determined to stay out of trouble – and to vote. “I’m going to tell my friends,” he said.

Patrick Chambers, 26, of Charlotte, has never voted. “I didn’t think I could” after a felony conviction, he said. He intends to vote for the first time in November. “People in the neighborhood are quick to accuse the government, ‘They don’t do this, they don’t do that,’” he said. “It’s really our fault if we don’t vote.”

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3