Many potential voters sidelined over felonies
Josh and Katy Vander Kamp met in drug rehab. In the seven years since, they have been rebuilding their lives in Apache Junction, Ariz., a small town east of Phoenix.
He's a landscaper; she's studying for a master's degree in addictions counseling. They have two children, a dog, and a house. Their lives reveal little of their past, except that Katy can vote and Josh can't - because he's a two-time felon.
She's been arrested three times but never convicted of a felony. By age 21, Josh had been charged with two - for a drug-paraphernalia violation and possessing a burglary tool.
"I didn't do anything that he didn't do, and he's paying for it for the rest of his life," Katy said.
With voting laws a heated issue this election year, as civil-rights groups and state legislatures battle over photo-ID requirements, statutes that deny felons the right to vote have attracted less attention.
A patchwork of restrictions in every state but Maine and Vermont keep about 5.85 million Americans with felony convictions off voting rolls, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based criminal-justice reform advocacy group. The report also suggests that some races are hit by these laws more than others.
A felon in Maine can vote from prison using an absentee ballot, while a felon convicted of the same crime in Florida, the state with the highest percentage of disenfranchised African Americans in the nation, might never regain the right to vote - even after release.
Pennsylvania felons can register to vote when they are released from prison, while in New Jersey felons can vote if they are no longer in prison or on parole or probation.
People convicted of more than one felony in Arizona lose gun-ownership and voting rights until a county court restores them. Josh Vander Kamp's first attempt at regaining his rights failed last year.
He applied to the county court that sentenced him in both cases and about three months later was rejected. Vander Kamp said he's not sure why his past is still a problem.
"It's over and done with. I've put it behind me. I wish other people would put it behind them," he said.
Supporters of these laws said the policies preserve the integrity of the American legal system by stopping people who might choose to undermine it with their votes.
"If you are unwilling to follow the law, then you can't demand a right to make the law for everyone else, and that's what you're doing when you vote," said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Falls Church, Va.-based Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank on issues of ethnicity and race.
Voting rights should be restored case by case, Clegg said, and only after felons can prove they have "turned over a new leaf."
Laws vary widely on how felons lose their voting rights and how states restore them.
In Mississippi, 22 categories of crime result in losing the right to vote. Timber larceny is on the list; manslaughter is not. Felons who want their voting rights back must be approved by a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the legislature, and the governor can sign or veto the action.
Until 2007, Maryland disenfranchised people convicted of misdemeanors involving corruption or fraud. Alabama denies the vote to anyone convicted of distributing pornography, even if it depicts consenting adults. Kentucky felons must apply to the governor.
Reform advocates see voting as a symbolic key step to returning felons to communities.
"When people are punished for crimes that they've committed, that should not involve forfeiting their basic rights of citizenship, which is what felony disenfranchisement does," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.
The group estimates that 75 percent of disenfranchised felons are no longer incarcerated.
Allen Jenkins, a black resident of Nashville, was released in 1996 after serving one year for a drug charge. Jenkins, 51, still hasn't regained his voting rights.
"I'm a U.S. citizen," Jenkins said. "I should be able to vote for whoever I want and to give my opinion."
Across the country, racial minorities are more likely to be barred from voting because of felony convictions, reform advocates say. Black people made up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, but 37.9 percent of the more than 1.5 million people in federal and state prisons, according to data from the census and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The governors in Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia have the last say when determining who can vote.
After taking office in January 2011, Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad revoked the automatic restoration process established by former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.
Iowa's application process has drawn complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union and felons who want to vote. Applicants must submit a criminal history and a credit report, and pay all fines and court fees to regain voting rights.
Branstad has approved only 10 applications that crossed his desk between December 2011 and May 15, according to Larry Johnson, deputy legal counsel for the Iowa governor's office. Johnson said three other applications were returned because they were incomplete.
Excluding felons from voting impacts the national political debate, said Christopher Uggen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the lead researcher for the Sentencing Project report.
"Whether it's welfare reform or whether it is progressive taxation or whether it is the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, each of those issues is going to be decided without the voices of six million people who are disproportionately poor, disproportionately persons of color," Uggen said.
Legislation that would create a national standard has failed in Congress. Democrats introduced the Voter Empowerment Act of 2012, which proposes sweeping changes in how federal elections are conducted and would let felons who are out of prison vote in federal elections.
In 2011, President Obama said the Department of Justice has the "capacity and the obligation" to monitor states' felon-disenfranchisement laws to make sure they are not "purposely exclusionary."
"One of the strengths of America has always been that this is a land of second chances," Obama said.
But states' rights advocates disagree.
"The 14th Amendment of the Constitution makes it very clear that states have the ability to remove the voting rights of individuals who have been convicted of rebellion or other crime," said Hans A. von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public-policy research institute based in Washington.
Andrea Rumbaugh, Jeremy Knop, Alissa Skelton, and Michael Ciaglo contributed to this article as did American Public Media's Public Insight Network.
Maryann Batlle was an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow this summer at News21.