On the main residential campus of TROSA, where North Carolina's substance abusers go to turn their lives around, four felons and recovering addicts sit at the head of a 25-foot boardroom table and discuss their voting rights—or perceived lack thereof. They all agree that their criminal histories have left them politically disenfranchised, but the exact nature and extent of their disenfranchisement is in dispute. Derek Beazer believes he must request a hearing before casting a ballot in the future. Selena Bigley, from Virginia, wonders if the laws of her home state apply here. Consuella Bassett says a prison official told her she'd never vote again. And Ronald Benfield learned the same. "I just thought that I lost all my rights," Benfield says. "I learned that from society."
But the truth is, they're all wrong. Felons in this state have their voting rights automatically reinstated upon release from prison, probation or parole—whichever applies. That includes convicts from other states and those guilty of federal crimes. They can register as anyone else would; they don't even need proof that they've finished their sentences.
But like the overwhelming majority of ex-offenders in North Carolina, these four are puzzled about the laws that govern their citizenship. It's not surprising, given that most convicts weren't casting ballots before they became entangled with the law. And the parole officers, probationers, county social workers and community service providers who usher them back into society seldom, if at all, make an issue of voting.
The neglect extends to the bureaucracies charged with maintaining and updating the voter rolls. The State Board of Elections and the Department of Correction actively designate felon status but do not remove that mark when a felon has completed his or her sentence—as mandated by state law implementing the federal Help America Vote Act. Among other things, it requires implementation of a statewide computer system that automatically connects the two agencies and keeps the rolls up to date.
From top to bottom, from the state agencies to the street, the effective disregard for the suffrage of a group, which currently numbers more than 71,000, threatens the legitimacy of the state's democratic process. North Carolina's felony voting legislation is among the most progressive in the country, but it goes largely unused.
Prohibiting felons from going to the polls is as old as the United States. When the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 stated that "all freemen" should be entitled to vote, it was implicit that women, slaves and prisoners did not number among the free. Legislators later made plain the de facto law of the land regarding felons: Like "idiots and lunatics" and men under 21, those convicted of "infamous crimes" could not elect representatives.
But since 1840 (and maybe even earlier), North Carolina has had legislation to restore full citizenship to convicted criminals, though the process was tortuous in the first century or so of the law's existence. Chapter 13 of the N.C. Statutes used to require an offender to wait two years after the completion of his sentence to file a petition in court. And there he had to produce five "respectable witnesses" who could help prove, often against opposing testimony, that the "character of the applicant for truth and honesty is good."
The 19th century-measure wasn't significantly changed until 1971, when the late Joy Johnson, a Robeson County representative, drafted a bill that laid the groundwork for the modern version of the law. Since then, Durham Rep. Mickey Michaux has authored legislation to make it even easier for ex-offenders to vote. Today, the agency, department or court having jurisdiction over the felon at the time his or her sentence ends has to immediately issue a certificate specifying the restoration of voting rights.
But even with this system in place, there has still been confusion among felons and even elections officials, especially at the county level.
When a registered voter is convicted of a felony, a code in the Board of Elections database is changed from "A" for "active" to "RF" for "remove/felon"; as of last month, there were more than 71,000 registrations coded RF, a quantity that represents an accumulation of voters over several years.
When a felon from that list completes his or her sentence, the corresponding registration record does not immediately remove felon status. The State Board of Elections cannot simply change the felony registration status from "remove/felon" back to "active." That would require a valid address, which most felons don't have when they leave prison. Instead, felons' voting records indicate they are felons until they register again. And this can cause confusion in county election offices.
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan voter rights organization, says that the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 (and North Carolina's compliance plan, in particular) would prevent these accidents if it were properly enforced. Passed in an effort to prevent the kinds of controversy that surrounded the 2000 presidential election, HAVA set national election standards and provided states with billions of dollars to improve voting systems. One section of the law called for states to implement centralized computer databases of voter registration records, partly in an attempt to prevent the kind of mishandling of felony records that happened in Florida, where 173,000 felony registrations were "scrubbed" from the list of voters by a private company with Republican ties. Moreover, Democracy N.C. and the state chapter of the NAACP successfully lobbied state legislators to insert language in the state compliance law that requires the status in the voter registration file to be changed to something other than "RF" when a person coded as a felon completes his or her sentence, automatically making that person eligible to vote.
"We wanted the language about felons specifically included in the state law to emphasize the importance of state officials taking more responsibility for the problem of ex-felons being given the runaround when they tried to re-register," Hall says.
The legislation now states, "The State Board of Elections shall update the statewide computerized voter registration list and database ... to reflect changes when citizenship rights are restored." But that's not happening.
North Carolina was granted nearly $75 million in federal funds to implement a computer system that would, among other things, meet Hall's standards by providing a way for the Department of Correction to notify the State Board of Elections when a felon's voting rights should be restored.
Bob Rauf, information systems director at the State Board of Elections, says the computer system reflects when someone becomes a felon, but not when the sentence has been served.
That's what has advocates at Democracy N.C. concerned. "When they became a felon, the court system was communicating with the Board of Elections and giving them a scarlet F," says Adam Sotak, organizing director at Democracy N.C. "However, the communication wasn't happening the other way around."
Hall advocates changing the "RF" designation to "CR," for "citizenship restored," when a felon finishes his or her sentence.
Don Wright, general counsel at the State Board of Elections, says any potential problems will not be solved with technology but by training elections board workers to register voters even if they say they've been a felon. It's a felony for them to register before they're allowed, he says.
Most, if not all, of the elections officials at the county level now understand the law, Wright says. But not always.
"We had one incident this year in Johnston County where an ex-felon was told to get written proof of his discharge," he says. State law does not require proof of any kind.
Organizers have been working for years to build a critical mass around the felony voter registration issue. The Rev. George Allison, the former executive director of the N.C. NAACP and the current director of the N.C. Human Relations Commission, spent five years giving workshops on felony disenfranchisement and coordinating voter registration drives, targeting felons in neighborhood barbershops and group homes. Allison also went to county jails to inform misdemeanants that they never lost their right to vote, and that they should be able to cast ballots even while incarcerated. "I would say 95 percent of them had been misinformed," Allison says. "The problem is that they are all told from day one that their voting rights will be forever denied. They think that what they've heard all these years is right."
The root of the problem may be in the prison system. "We have been told by felons that DOC officials don't tell them correctly," Wright says. "We have encouraged correction people to let them know they can vote."
Delilah Summers, who worked with Allison, says she found that many officials at the county level were ignorant of felony voting laws and that some clerks at the county boards of elections were unaware of the statutory changes implemented more than 30 years ago.
Organizers from Democracy N.C. discovered the same thing in their efforts. "Basically our ears first perked up on this issue when we were out knocking on doors," Sotak says. Every summer his organization runs a project where college students and others educate citizens about their voting rights. "We were very surprised on how many people we would run into that would say, 'I can't vote,'" he says. "It was more prevalent than we thought it would be." To help overcome the ignorance, Democracy N.C. produced a one-page, fold-over brochure they distributed to halfway houses and civic groups.
Their efforts have helped, but advocacy organizations like Democracy N.C. and the NAACP don't come into contact with nearly as many felons as the institutional and community-based organizations that reintroduce felons to life outside the prisons and the court system. There are more than 20 such organizations in Durham, Orange and Wake counties—some direct services of the counties and others nonprofit or religious groups. They list employment training, Bible study, housing assistance, mental health and substance abuse counseling among their services. But none of them conduct voter education.
"These folks didn't vote before they went," says Dennis Gaddy, who runs Community Success Initiative in Wake County, which mentors former prisoners and their families in entrepreneurship, financial literacy and general life skills. "When you're dealing drugs and caught up in crime, you aren't voting," he says. "You're trying to stay away from anything that looks legal."
Most service providers don't find that voter registration is a pressing concern with their clients. "From a practical standpoint, if I can't find a place to stay, I don't care about voting," Gaddy says. More than 20,000 inmates leave North Carolina prisons every year, and the vast majority will remain politically disenfranchised because of a systemic failure to get the word out.
"The fact that they can't vote is just another way of keeping people incarcerated," Gaddy says.
If the residents at TROSA are any indication, felons will respond positively to widespread education efforts. Consuella Bassett, who hasn't gone to the polls since the 1980s, when she voted for Ronald Reagan, stressed that the current state of affairs might drive her to the polls. "The only reason I would want my rights back is to vote against the war," says Bassett, who has a stepfather in Iraq.
"I probably would vote, but only if I know what it's about," says Bigley. "I've never kept up on it like I should ... I think it would be really good for them to have something set up where people can vote here."
Benfield, another TROSA resident, sees access to the ballot as part of his rehabilitation. "Now that I've been in this program, I am concerned about wanting to be able to vote," Benfield says. "I feel like a different person. I feel like I've paid my debt to society."