Castaway voters: Felons in Virginia

October 23, 2008

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Story Transcript

Castaway Voters: Felons In Virginia

By Garland McLaurin

RODERICK COOK, KAPPATAL CUTS, MASTER BARBER: I feel like I made a lot of mistakes. And I think if I would have known how much you lose from, you know, committing crimes and doing things of those nature, I think I would have been less likely to involve myself in something that would take away the things that I value.

VOICEOVER: For Roderick Cook, one of those things is the right to vote. He served his time and is no longer on parole. He’s a successful barber and loves talking about politics, but has not gotten his voting rights restored.

RYAN S. KING, THE SENTENCING PROJECT, POLICY ANALYST: Currently there are about 5.3 million Americans who are prohibited from voting. Virginia is, along with Kentucky, one of the most restrictive states. Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states in which any felony conviction can result in a lifetime loss of voting rights, and the impact on the electorate in Virginia is profound. There’s about 377,000 residents of Virginia who cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction. It’s estimated that about 300,000 of those individuals have completed sentence.

VOICEOVER: Since the ’70s, when harsher federal sentencing guidelines were established, the number of felons in the US prison system has exploded, thus resulting in more citizens losing their right to vote, sometimes for life.

KING: We don’t have any good numbers on participation of people who have been convicted of a felony and come out of prison or off of probation/supervision and vote. If they are indeed not eligible, they’re not told what the process is for registration; if they are eligible, they’re not told what they have to do to register.

COOK: It’s a lengthy process. You know, I would have probably had to start it a year ago to probably be eligible to vote in this election.

VOICEOVER: Some criticize the efforts to give former felons their rights restored as an attempt to boost Democratic voter rolls. However, some of the most progressive legislation to restore the rights of felons comes from Republicans.

KING: It’s not a partisan issue. I would say one of the real tragedies about this is that it has been portrayed as a Democratic-Republican issue for a lot of people. Former Governor George W. Bush signed into law a reform in Texas in 1997. Current Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican as well, from the state of Florida, has spearheaded reform to the restoration process for people who completed sentence in that state. There’s an interesting line of research that’s coming out now and currently being replicated in another jurisdiction which shows that for people who have been convicted of a crime and then are released and go out and vote are less likely to re-offend. So there’s a real linkage—not necessarily causal, but certainly a linkage between people’s desire to vote and participate in the political process and whether they’re likely to commit another crime.

COOK: And I want to be able to say my vote counted in this election. Whether Obama wins, whether, you know, McCain wins, or whatever the case is, I want to say that I had a vote and I was a part of it. You know? I pay taxes, but I’m not, you know, in a position to be able to have a say-so on where my tax money is spent because I’m a convicted felon. I’m not perfect. You know, it took time to kind of mold myself into an area I am in now. I’m going on—I’m 36 in January. And now I just want to be a part of society. I want to be a part of what’s making our society a great, you know, democracy.

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