Efforts to restore felons' voting rights cause deep divide

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Tommy Banks is not native to the Norfolk area but was able to register to vote as a resident with the help of New Virginia Majority staffers.

Fifth of seven parts.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Republican and Democratic politicians across the country are deeply divided over restoring the right to vote to felons, a political fracture that affects millions of convicted criminals.

In Iowa and Kentucky, Democratic governors issued executive orders to restore voting rights to many felons, only to have them rescinded by Republican governors who succeeded them.

Democratic legislators in 29 states proposed more than 270 bills over the last six years that would have made it easier for some felons to vote, but very few passed, especially in legislatures controlled by Republicans, News21 found in an analysis of state legislative measures nationwide.

Debate and decisions about restoring voting rights to felons often follow partisan lines because felons, particularly African Americans, are viewed as more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, voting rights experts told News21.

Nationwide, one in 13 black voters is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, compared with to one in 56 nonblack voters, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that works on criminal justice sentencing policies and racial disparities.

In Alabama, Delaware, Wyoming, and Maryland, six laws passed that increased felons' access to the ballot. For example, Delaware eliminated the five-year waiting period and requirement that felons pay court-appointed fees before having their rights restored. An additional six bills were enacted in Texas, California, Louisiana, and Virginia to address procedures, access to information, and legal clarifications.

Democrats proposed 10 of the enacted bills, Republicans one, and one came from a nonpartisan legislative committee.

"Democrats are probably going to like it [felon voting] because they are going to expect a draw of votes and Republicans tend to object," said Lynn M. Sanders, a University of Virginia professor and expert in American government. "The people who do not register and do not tend to vote are usually poorer, less white, younger, and more likely to have complicated backgrounds, like a conviction."

"This issue is very politicized because some Republicans associate the expanding franchise with more Democratic votes," said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project. The organization estimates nearly six million felons are disenfranchised nationwide.

News21's analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislators found 316 bills nationwide that would have allowed more access to voting for felons. Republican-controlled legislatures blocked 137, 101 failed to pass in states with divided control, and 65 were unsuccessful in Democratic-controlled legislatures. Maryland's Republican governor successfully vetoed one bill.

"Most of these people are not currently incarcerated," said Ghandnoosh. "They're living among us in their communities, but because of restrictions and laws that prevent people from being able to vote until they've gone through a number of hurdles, they are not able to engage and be a part of our democracy."

Maine and Vermont are the only states where felons never lose the right to vote, even in prison. "You don't lose your citizenship when you get incarcerated," said Foster Bates, an inmate at the Maine State Prison and president-elect of its NAACP chapter. "You shouldn't be limited in what you can vote for and who you can vote for."

Bates, who was convicted of murder, said more than 1,200 inmates are registered to vote in Maine. "To assume these people don't understand the process is a cry for justice," he said. "Voting in here is everything to us."

In Pennsylvania, felons cannot vote while they are incarcerated, but can vote if they are on probation or released on parole. New Jersey, in contrast, does not allow felons to vote until they have finished serving parole or probation sentences.

Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia impose the strictest laws, which can permanently disenfranchise felons regardless of the offenses. Virginia's Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a blanketed restoration of voting rights to felons earlier this year, but the Virginia Supreme Court struck it down. McAuliffe was disappointed with the decision because, he said, it was made for political reasons.

Florida requires those convicted of nonviolent offenses to wait five years and those convicted of more serious offenses to wait seven years before applying for clemency. The Florida Commission on Offender Review's Board of Executive Clemency, which currently includes the governor, state attorney general, chief financial officer and commissioner of agriculture, decides whether to grant or deny the request. Members of the board could not be reached for comment.

Over the last six years, Florida's Democrats have introduced nine bills that would have made it easier for felons to vote, but none passed in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Orlando-area Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson said Florida's law, which affects nearly one in four African Americans, is the modern-day equivalent of a poll tax. "This is the most effective disenfranchisement tool in the country," Grayson said. "Other efforts are amateurish."

In Virginia, even before his sweeping executive order, McAuliffe said he had restored voting rights to 18,000 felons by granting individual pardons.

McAuliffe told News21 at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that his actions were for moral reasons, not political reasons.

"I'm committed and passionate," he said. "It isn't about Election Day - it's about letting these folks come back in and vote and feel good about themselves."

McAuliffe issued his executive order April 22 restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed the terms of their sentences, including probation and parole.

Less than a month later, major players in the state's Republican-controlled General Assembly - including House Speaker William J. Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. - challenged McAuliffe's order with a lawsuit, arguing that the governor violated the state constitution.

The Virginia Supreme Court agreed. In a 4-3 decision in July, Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons said the court "respectfully disagreed" with McAuliffe's belief that the governor holds the power to make blanket restorations. Howell and Norment could not be reached for comment.

Since April, about 13,000 felons registered to vote - just 6 percent of those who were eligible before the recent court ruling, according to a news release McAuliffe issued after the ruling. In his statement, he said he planned to "expeditiously sign nearly 13,000 individual orders to restore the fundamental rights of the citizens who have had their rights restored and registered to vote."

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, does not support permanent disenfranchisement, but does think felons should have to show "they've turned over a new leaf." He said Iowa, Florida, and Kentucky - all states that require applications to be reviewed individually - are good models for rights restoration.

"If you're not willing to follow the law, you can't make the law for everyone else," Clegg said.

In Kentucky, felons must submit applications to the governor. Each is reviewed on an individual basis. Last year, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear tried to establish automatic restoration procedures before leaving office, issuing an executive order that would have granted voting rights to more than 140,000 nonviolent offenders who completed their sentences and paid restitution. A month later, newly elected Republican Gov. Matt Bevin rescinded the order.

Kentucky Rep. Darryl T. Owens has also pushed for automatic restoration for felons who have completed their full sentences. Each year, his legislation passes the state's Democratic-controlled House of Representatives but fails to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Republican Rep. Adam Koenig always votes against it, saying it's "trying to fix something that's not that broken."

"There are numerous elected officials, mostly mayors and city council members throughout Kentucky, who are convicted felons and have had their voting rights restored," he said. "It is not a very complicated process."

The Kentucky Department of Corrections received 16,016 applications from felons between 2002 and 2015, and about 72 percent of applicants were granted their rights.

Sarah Grady, an attorney who leads the Prisoners' Rights Project for the Loevy & Loevy civil rights law firm, points to the low number of applicants compared with the state's overall disenfranchised population of more than 170,000, according to the Sentencing Project.

"Given the low number of applications, that's not an appropriate remedy to fix what the governor himself is acknowledging by an 80 percent approval rating," Grady said. "It's a silly draconian law that really has no place in modern society."

Staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.