When he was 22, Willie Robinson shot and killed a woman in the course of a failed carjacking. But in 2002, after 20 years in prison, he was released — and he believes he's paid his debt to society.
Under sentencing laws, the state of Washington agrees. But under another law that bars former felons from voting, he continues to pay.
"I can't vote, and yet I pay taxes toward the salaries of the people who represent me," says Robinson, now a cabinetmaker in suburban Marysville. "Isn't it so that people want us to be productive citizens after getting out? But then we have limited rights to participate. It doesn't make sense."
Robinson is one of about 4.7 million Americans disenfranchised by state laws that suspend or cancel voting rights for people who have committed felonies. He is also African American, putting him in the group of Americans most affected by these laws because blacks are disproportionately convicted of felonies. In some cities, as many as one in three African American men are barred from voting.
The state laws have long been a point of contention among prisoner rights groups. They became a subject of national debate after President Bush won Florida by a razor-thin margin in the 2000 election in a race where voting by ex-felons might easily have changed the outcome.
“What galvanized the debate was the appearance of disenfranchisement law as a tool in electoral combat,” says Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at Harvard and author of "The Right to Vote."
Part of the controversy was fueled by the conventional, though unproven, notion that African American voters in particular, and people emerging from prison in general, are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.
Some critics say disenfranchisement laws are little more than an extension of old Jim Crow measures designed to dilute the political clout of African American communities. "Whenever you are talking about prison populations, you are talking about race," says Mervyn Mercano, communications director the Right to Vote Coalition in Washington, D.C.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act bars states from systematically suppressing the black vote, but it doesn't address the issue of felons and voting, and courts have upheld the state laws.
A state-by-state affair
Early in the nation's history, most states had provisions limiting political rights for people convicted of "infamous crimes," as felonies were called at the time, and some Southern states famously beefed up those provisions after the Civil War to keep freed slaves out of politics.
Over time, legislatures have generally changed laws with the most obvious racist motivations. And since the 1960s and 1970s, many states have moved toward restoring voter rights after a felon is released from prison, or after parole or probation requirements are satisfied. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow inmates to vote.
But in 13 states, cumbersome application processes, waiting periods and other requirements mean that people with a felony conviction are barred from the voting booth well beyond the end of their sentences. Alabama, Florida, Virginia and Kentucky have lifetime bans on felons voting.
In the most restrictive states, an 18-year-old convicted of burglary could be permanently barred from the political process. A college student with a felony marijuana possession conviction would forever lose the right to vote.
When Robinson completes another three years of parole he can apply to regain the right to vote, but the process is complex and success isn't assured — ultimately, he must win a pardon from the governor.
"The truth is, we're set up to fail," says Robinson, who feels lucky not to have ended up on the streets like many former inmates. Since his release, he has cofounded an organization called Justice Works, which helps inmates emerging from prison with the difficult pursuit of housing, jobs and political rights.
Courts back felon exclusion
The Supreme Court has ruled that states have the right to restrict voting so long as they apply laws equally to all races, even if the outcome is uneven.
A 1985 decision, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, largely closed the door on arguments about the uneven impact of these laws. The decision notes that the 14th Amendment, which granted all male adults the right to vote, does allow states to exclude people for "participation in rebellion, or other crime."
So while some legal experts argue that the post-Civil War provisions were aimed at excluding traitors — and not, for instance, cattle rustlers — the court allowed states to maintain a broader interpretation of "other crime."
Defenders of these laws say they are not only legal, but logical.
"Somebody who is not willing to follow the law should not claim a right to make the law for everyone else. When you vote that’s what you’re doing," says Roger Clegg, general counsel to the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D.C., think tank that opposes race-based policy decisions.
Clegg says it makes sense to withhold voting rights, and restore them on a case-by-case basis, depending on the seriousness of the crime, how recently it was committed and whether there were repeat offenses.
The disproportionate impact on African Americans is not a reason to repeal the laws, he says, drawing an analogy: "A disproportionate number of crimes are committed by men, not women, but I don’t think that makes the laws sexist."
But race became an issue after the 2000 election turmoil in Florida, where about 600,000 adults, by far the largest number in the country, are barred from voting by the state's felon disenfranchisement law. More than one-quarter of those excluded were African American.
On top of that, prior to the election, Gov. Jeb Bush's administration distributed lists of felons to be certain they would be barred from polling places. But the process also excluded legitimate voters, including some who had their voting rights restored elsewhere in the country.
The battle over laws that prevent felons from voting has intensified since 2000, with right-to-vote groups working to register ex-felons who can vote, and pressing for change in states with restrictive laws.
"In some places we're asking for more clarity on how to regain the right to vote," says Mercano of the Right to Vote Coalition. "In some places we're asking for automatic restoration of the right to vote. It varies, depending on what is realistic for each state."
A class-action lawsuit on behalf of Florida's disenfranchised ex-felons could make its way to the Supreme Court.
At the national level, Democratic Sens. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barbara Boxer of California are leading voting reform called the Count Every Vote Act of 2005, which would override state's disenfranchisement laws and automatically restore voting rights to felons once they are released from prison.
The proposed legislation is reviled by Republicans, not only because they believe the matter is a states' rights issue, but because they believe Democrats are cynically trying to benefit from voting by ex-felons.
As conservative commentator George Will put it in a recent Newsweek commentary: "Sentimentalism and cold calculation combine to make felons' voting attractive to liberals. ... It is indelicate to say but indisputably true: most felons — not all; not those, for example, from Enron's executive suites — are Democrats. Or at least were they to vote, most would vote Democratic."
But for Robinson, it is a deeply personal, unresolved issue: "When is my debt actually paid? When is it?"