RICHMOND, Va. — Undaunted by the heat, James Bailey spent his late-summer afternoons walking Virginia's bleakest neighborhoods on the hunt for ex-cons — each a potential voter who might cast the decisive ballot in this hotly contested state.
Finding them isn't the hard part. It's getting them to admit that a past mistake has kept them from the ballot box.
"People are really, really reluctant to say, 'I lost my rights to vote,'" Bailey said of his quest, which continued in the run-up to Monday's registration deadline in Virginia for the November election.
Nationally, there are roughly 4 million released felons whose convictions have cost them the right to vote at least temporarily, if not permanently. To return to the ballot box, felons must negotiate suffrage laws that vary from state to state, in many cases working with election officials who can be both unfamiliar with the law and hostile to former convicts seeking to register.
Such challenges matter little to Bailey and others trying to return former criminals to voter rolls, an effort they consider crucial in light of the results of the past two presidential elections: A shift of a few hundred votes in Florida in 2000 would have changed the outcome of the presidential race, and the results in 2004 came down to a margin of 119,000 votes in Ohio.
Making the push
The nonprofit groups and individual activists making the push on felons' behalf agree the effort is broader this year than in previous elections, even if they aren't necessarily making a coordinated push. They expect that effort to benefit Barack Obama more than John McCain, given that the population of former felons is disproportionately black.
Obama has co-sponsored a Senate measure that would allow all ex-felons to vote, but his campaign isn't directly targeting ex-felons for registration. His campaign does include relevant info on its Web site and educates volunteers so they can explain state laws to those who may not realize they have the right to vote, said spokesman Kevin Griffis.
"All we're trying to do is make sure that, if someone is eligible, that they know their rights and that if they want to vote, they can take part," Griffis said Tuesday. "I think there's a lot of misinformation out there. Even people who may have been guilty of a misdemeanor feel like the felony laws apply to them and say they can't vote."
McCain has said states should decide whether felons have voting rights. But he personally believes ex-felons should forfeit certain rights when they commit a serious crime and that the right to vote should be restored only on a case-by-case basis — much like Virginia's process.
'I would go with Barack'
Roughly 13 percent of black men nationwide have lost the right to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, which advocates the reform of felon voting rights. Black ministers, civic leaders and activists believe they are a rich source of votes for Obama.
"Of course I would go with Barack," said Deshawn Tatem, a dreadlocked drug dealer-turned-activist from Chesapeake, Va. But he's never cast a ballot. "Right at 18, I caught the felony."
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Tatem has never made the time to fill out an application to restore his voter rights, a request that would have to be approved by the governor. That means there's no way he'll be able to vote in November.
In Florida, where a new rule means more than 115,000 former felons who completed their sentences are now able to vote, civil rights attorney Reggie Mitchell said he's nonpartisan when he calls felons at home to give them information about registering to vote. But he also acknowledges the obvious.
Blacks represent "about 40 percent of the people who've gotten their rights lost and restored," Mitchell said. "With an African-American running, and such a critical mass, this could have a tremendous impact."
Kenneth Glasgow served 14 years on robbery and drug charges in Alabama. Now a pastor, Glasgow launched a voter registration drive inside the prisons in Alabama, where state law allows voting by felons convicted of lesser crimes such as possession of small amounts of drugs, battery or attempted burglary — even while still serving a sentence.
Glasgow, a Democrat, estimates as many as 70,000 felons in Alabama might be eligible to vote but haven't registered. Bringing them to the polls, he said, has the potential to alter the state's political landscape.
"It's not a black-white thing," Glasgow said. "It's that people will see Republicans standing against having people's rights restored while the Democrats aren't."
The state Department of Corrections halted Glasgow's registration drive after two days because of complaints from the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party that registering inmates without adequate monitoring could lead to voter fraud. Fewer than 80 inmates filled out registration forms. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has filed suit challenging the prison commissioner's decision to stop the registration drive.
Only two states — Maine and Vermont — place no limits on voting due to a criminal conviction; even prison inmates can cast a ballot. Kentucky and Virginia are the only two states that permanently bar felons from voting, although the governors of those states can restore voting rights to individuals.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear streamlined the process in March, and has since restored the rights of more than 740 released convicts. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine promised to fast-track applications for voter restoration that his office received by Aug. 1, adding three people to his staff to process applications before Monday's registration deadline.
Applications in Virginia jumped from 76 for all of July 2007 to 138 in a single week this summer. Kaine, the governor for nearly three years, had restored the rights of 2,633 felons as of Monday, according to his spokesman, Gordon Hickey.
Laws in the other 46 states are varied, some of them a relic of the Jim Crow era, according to the Brennan Center. Eight states permanently bar felons convicted of certain crimes from voting, while the others restore the right after a sentence is completed, including parole, or as soon as an inmate is released from prison.
Faulkner Fox, who leads organizing efforts for the group "Durham for Obama" in North Carolina, said volunteers there frequently explain to shocked ex-felons that they can register to vote.
The confusion isn't limited to felons. Researchers at the Brennan Center and the American Civil Liberties Union interviewed election officials in 23 states from 2003 to this year. In a report released Wednesday, the groups said many officials in those states didn't understand voter eligibility rules for felons or how they can register to vote.
Among the problems: officials telling those convicted of misdemeanors they had lost the right to vote, failing to distinguish between probation and parole, and illegally demanding documentation. The researchers also found election officials who said they wouldn't help a felon register, which concerns civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"We still find election officials at the polls in too many cases only ask African-American males if (they) have a felony offense," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington bureau.
The confusion works both ways. In some cases, the researchers found election officials willing to register felons who were not yet eligible to cast a ballot under that state's law — a potential case of criminal voter fraud.
The ACLU, the NAACP and others support a nationwide standard that would restore voting rights to all inmates once they leave prison.
"Once a single local election official misinforms a citizen that he is not eligible to vote because of a past conviction, it is unlikely that citizen will ever follow up or make a second inquiry," the ACLU and Brennan Center report said. "The citizen will mistakenly believe that he is ineligible to vote for years, decades, or maybe the rest of his life."
But getting the information right, and then registering felons, isn't a guarantee of results. Tatem, the former felon from Virginia, isn't sure how much of a difference people like him will make.
"If they got their rights tomorrow, most of them probably still wouldn't vote," he said. "When you've been caged for so long, you can leave that cage open and some folk won't go through."
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