As tens of millions head to the polls today, we take a look at the issue of felony disenfranchisement, the practice by state governments of barring people convicted of a felony from voting, even after they have served their time. What many don’t realize is that while a few states have permanent felony disenfranchisement laws, many allow those with a felony record to eventually rejoin the voter rolls. Democracy Now!’s Mike Kimber discusses his experience casting a ballot for the first time in his life after realizing he was allowed to vote in New York. We also speak with Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center for Justice. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by a first-time voter. Two years ago, when I raced into the firehouse here at Democracy Now! for the broadcast just after voting, I bumped into Mike Kimber, who I work with at Democracy Now!, as he was coming out. And I asked Mike, “Did you already vote?” And he said, “No, I can’t vote, because I have a record.” I said, “But why would that affect you being able to vote?” And he said he thought it did.
So I went home that day and wrote a column to find out in what states does this matter and where doesn’t it matter. The fact is, if you have a record, if you’ve committed a felony, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t vote. For example, in Vermont, you can vote from prison.
Well, today is a new day. It’s Election Day 2008, two years later, and Mike Kimber joins us here in our firehouse studio.
MIKE KIMBER: Hello, Amy. How are you doing?
AMY GOODMAN: Good. So I saw you this morning. I ran in from voting, and you were coming out, and I asked you the same question: “Mike, did you vote?” Did you?
MIKE KIMBER: Yes, this was my first time ever voting. And I was able to vote because of your column, because, through generations, I was told that as long as you had a felony, that you could not vote. And I wasn’t told directly at the polls that, but from generation through my family and all my friends that I knew that said if you had a felony record, that you could not vote.
I asked ten people this morning at the shelter, was they voting, and they told me they wasn’t going to vote, because they had a felony record. And I told them they could have voted, they could have registered, because my boss had did the research and found out I can vote. And that’s where I was on my way, to vote.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re right across from the oldest mission in New York, where you also work.
MIKE KIMBER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you register?
MIKE KIMBER: I just went there and registered. And I thought it was real hard, you know, to register online. I thought it was hard, and it wasn’t. It was real simple. And they sent me the card and everything. And it was so simple. And I thought it was a big long process of doing it, but it wasn’t. It was so easy, and they sent it to me. I was like amazed that it was just that easy to do it, because I had never voted ever in my life. I never even tried to vote, because I always thought that I couldn’t vote.
AMY GOODMAN: So, did you go with the head of the mission to register?
MIKE KIMBER: No, he didn’t — I went this morning.
AMY GOODMAN: But to register?
MIKE KIMBER: Yes, yes. I went with him, and we went and registered. It was easy. It was unbelievable.
AMY GOODMAN: So what did it feel like? Where did you vote today?
MIKE KIMBER: I voted on Mott Street. 181 Mott Street.
AMY GOODMAN: In Chinatown.
MIKE KIMBER: In Chinatown, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What time did you go?
MIKE KIMBER: I went at 5:30.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you first in line?
MIKE KIMBER: Second. I was second one in line.
AMY GOODMAN: How did it feel?
MIKE KIMBER: It felt different. You know, I was doing something for the very first time. You know, I don’t know what kind of feeling that I have behind it. You know, it was just, I was happy I was able to do this; as being a citizen of the United States, I was able to vote. And for all this bad information that I had got all these years, I wasn’t voting because of listening to other people about — that I couldn’t vote, and it was not true.
AMY GOODMAN: What motivated you this time?
MIKE KIMBER: Well, I really feel that anybody that stands behind George Bush is like mentally retarded. And I wanted to have a voice in this, and I wanted to vote this time, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone by Myrna Perez, author of the "Voter Purges” report, an attorney with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Myrna, can you talk about the rights of people who have a record, who have committed a felony, have served time? Where can they vote? Where can’t they vote?
MYRNA PEREZ: Thank you so much, Amy, for having me. I appreciate y’all calling and being interested in this topic.
I’m very excited to hear about my fellow guest’s experience today. New York is one of the states that permits people with criminal convictions to vote, provided that they are — completed their terms of parole. Probationers can vote. People who have not been actually convicted but are still in jail, but are waiting conviction, are also entitled to vote.
Unfortunately, though, there are 5.3 million Americans across this country who cannot vote because of a criminal conviction, because of their state law. And even more unfortunately, four million people of them are outside of prison and are living and working in the community among us.
There are two states, as pointed out, Vermont and Maine, who allow people with felony convictions to vote, and you never lose your voting rights. You can even vote in prison. But in states like Kentucky and Virginia, all people who have felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised, unless the government individually approves their right to restoration.
And one of the things that was pointed out, which is definitely the case in New York, is that there are even more people disenfranchised from this policy because of what we call de facto disenfranchisement, where people don’t understand the laws, not only the voters themselves, but also the election officials. And so, even more people than the law disenfranchises are disenfranchised. We have done a number of studies in New York, where — in New York State, where we’ve called the election office and asked them, you know, “I’m on probation; can I vote?” and have been told no, which is not the case. So I’m very glad to hear that there is good information out there, and I think we can and we should do better, because these laws themselves already disenfranchise a number of people, and we need to make sure that misinformation about these laws don’t disenfranchise even more.
AMY GOODMAN: When I did the column in 2006 — and I think the numbers have changed somewhat, but 5.3 million US citizens ineligible to vote because of felony disenfranchisement, two million of them African American; of these, 1.4 million African American men, which translates into an incredible 13 percent of that population, a rate seven times higher than in the overall population.
MYRNA PEREZ: And if I may, Amy, I mean, one other thing that I find really disturbing is that if the current trends continue, then that means three out of ten of the next generation of African American men are going to lose their right to vote at some point in their lifetime.
AMY GOODMAN: Myrna Perez, where are you speaking to us from?
MYRNA PEREZ: I am calling from the nonpartisan Election Protection call center. There’s a number of them in New York. We are taking calls all across the country. And voters are calling in with problems that they are experiencing on Election Day and to report problems that they see other people experiencing.
AMY GOODMAN: If people have problems, where should they call?
MYRNA PEREZ: They should call 866-OUR-VOTE. That’s 866-OUR-VOTE. You know, we are getting a number of reports of lines being long because the machines are broken down or some polling places didn’t start — didn’t open early enough. But what I do like to tell voters is that this is a historic election, and we should all be very proud of everybody that wants to participate. And so, you know, if there’s something that seems to be going wrong at your polling station, then go ahead and say something, give us a holler, but make sure you stay in line and cast your ballot.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Myrna Perez, thank you very much for being with us, from the Brennan Center, doing Election Protection today. And, Mike Kimber, final thoughts on this — well, this is a first for you.
MIKE KIMBER: Yeah, this is a first. But I wish that information that you gave me, that a lot of people knew about, because I think a lot more people would have voted that has the same problem that I had, you know — well, I thought we had. A lot of people just don’t know. You know, and I honestly wouldn’t have never knew — I wouldn’t even have researched it, because I had heard all the time that you couldn’t vote, until you did the research. I wouldn’t have never — it never came across my mind even to go vote after I’m hearing this. So, so many people I know are just like me, and that information needs to get out where everybody should know.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, not only information about the laws as they stand, but, of course, these laws can be changed. Thanks very much, Mike Kimber, for joining us. I’ll post the voter disenfranchisement column on our website at democracynow.org.