The letter startled Isaiah Cage. Twenty years after he’d been convicted of drug trafficking, and 17 since he had been released from prison, he was holding in his hand a single sheet of paper from the Clark County Election Department accusing him of a felony for trying to vote.
“In conjunction with the Metropolitan Police Department we have discovered that you registered to vote even though you are a convicted felon … it was a gross misdemeanor to willfully give false information on a voter registration application. By re-registering, the same violation would now constitute a felony …”
Since his conviction occurred before July 1, 2003, under Nevada law Cage’s right to vote had been automatically restored. At least that’s what he thought.
“I wanted to get my record sealed, since I’d made it to 15 years past the end of my sentence,” Cage said. “When I went to get help with sealing my record, they said I was eligible to vote already. I didn’t even know.”
In 2003, the state approved a provision to automatically restore voting rights for first-time, nonviolent felons immediately after completion of their sentence. However, the compromise state legislators forged to get the bill passed left a muddled mess with different stipulations depending on when the conviction occurred and the type of felony. Even the most eager to cast their vote this year can easily be deterred by the bureaucratic swamp they must wade through first.
“People tend to think it’s very easy, but they don’t have to use the system,” said Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who helped author the bill as a state assemblywoman. “They don’t walk through it and see what it takes. It’s a huge disconnect between the people registering and the government agencies. There are 16 different counties, and they all handle it differently.”
Now, nonprofit agencies are left to help Nevada’s ex-felons navigate the law. According to Bureau of Justice statistics from 2004, a year after the law passed, Nevada still had 21,666 ex-felons who were ineligible to vote.
A lot of ex-felons like Cage are discouraged by the long process required to get their voting rights back, and that is before they receive threatening letters from the Election Department. Cage was reluctant to get involved with the system again—the one that has prevented him from getting a job for the last 17 years.
“I can’t even buff floors at a casino,” said the 57-year-old, who started his own floor-maintenance company to provide for his two daughters. “Because I have to check that box on the application form that says I was convicted of a felony, I can’t even clean floors. Now I register to vote and they are talking about sending me to jail again. I thought I got those rights back automatically.”
Cage will now have to track down release papers from 1991 and prove he is eligible before he can cast his ballot this fall.
Thanks in large part to Giunchigliani and lobbying groups, some voting rights have been restored. But while some say the law hasn’t gone far enough, others question if ex-felons should ever get their voting rights back. Meanwhile, the ex-felons caught inside the political battle still struggle to express their political voice.
“Going forward, we need a straightforward law,” said Launce Rake of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), a nonprofit agency that, among other things, helps ex-convicts reassimilate after incarceration and also lobbied for the 2003 change in the law. “One thing for certain is that the current one isn’t working. I don’t think the department of elections fully understands the law. We tell people with questions we can’t answer to call the department, and they turn around and tell them to call us.”
Giunchigliani was going door-to-door talking to constituents when she was still in the Nevada Assembly. One day she met someone similar to Cage.
“I met a 65-year-old man who said, ‘I can’t vote, I’m an ex-felon,’” she recalled. “He was convicted of a felony in New York when he was 18 for drunk driving. It was still on his record. There was just no reason to drive people like that underground and out of participating in the community … That’s how I got involved.”
This also happened to be around the time of the 2000 presidential election, when some voters in Florida were erroneously scratched from the registry because their names matched those of ex-felons. A nationwide campaign for the re-enfranchisement of ex-felons led by groups such as the ACLU and the Sentencing Project gained steam. Over the last eight years at least 16 states have adopted less stringent laws regarding felon voting rights.
Giunchigliani began work with like-minded legislators sponsoring what became Assembly Bill 55. Her idea was a simple law that would automatically restore the right to vote to all felons who completed their sentences. However, once the bill went through the meat grinder of legislative debate, various stipulations were added so it could get enough votes to pass.
“A lot of people didn’t want to reinstate voting rights at all; they said they lost that privilege when you committed a felony,” said State Senator Dennis Nolan, who worked on the bill as part of the judiciary committee. “First of all, having restrictions on someone who has been convicted of a felony is not unusual. Somebody who was in prison has forfeited some of their civil rights. Over the last six to eight years some states looked to start reinstituting some of those civil privileges. Nevada wasn’t ready to bite off the whole thing all at once. This is a relatively conservative state.”
Opponents of the bill felt that felons forfeited their right to vote when they committed a crime, and at the very least wanted a distinction drawn between violent and nonviolent offenders.
“Nonviolent criminals and violent criminals are in different categories,” said Lorraine Newlon, a lobbyist for Victims of Violent or Brutal Crimes. “You have to cross a line to violate that sanctity of life. To me if you take a life, you are not a productive citizen, and you have no right to vote. If it’s a nonviolent crime it shouldn’t be a problem ... that shouldn’t have anything to do with your voting rights. It’s not complicated; if you take a life you owe a life. You should be incarcerated for life, or you should be dead. That doesn’t include voting—you lose that right when you kill or rape someone.”
What came out of the state legislature was a compromise, and the effectiveness of the law is still up for debate.
Those who were convicted of a felony before July 1, 2003, had their voting rights automatically restored upon release. For those convicted after that date, only first-time offenders who committed a Category C felony or lesser, or a Category B crime that didn’t involve violence, are eligible to vote.
In Nevada there are several different categories of felonies, ranging from A through E, which determine the length and severity of the sentence. Category A felonies range from murder and kidnapping to incest and large-scale drug trafficking. Examples of Category B felonies are securities fraud, assault with a deadly weapon and three DUI convictions in seven years.
“If you want people to reassimilate into society, you need to provide a path. We are talking after they have paid their debt to society,” Giunchigliani said. “If people are more informed and more participatory in the community, they are more likely to assimilate again and not have other issues.”
Before 2003, the only way an ex-felon could vote is if his or her record were sealed, which, depending on the category, could take up to 15 years.
According to Bureau of Justice stats, as of December 2004 there were 43,954 total disenfranchised felons in Nevada, and 5,266,207 nationwide.
“It’s up to the ex-felon if they want to participate,” Nolan said. “If they want to go through the process, they can go online to the legal counsel bureau, or the parole and probation office has printed instructions on how it works, as does the elections department. I’m very happy with the way the bill turned out.”
Giunchigliani, on the other hand, is not entirely satisfied with the results of her initiative.
“It’s shameful,” she said. “Voting rights are very important, and everyone is interpreting [the law] differently. It’s been a huge problem … the intimidation of people. Some registrars, they do a match against felon rolls, but then don’t bother to find out if they have completed the sentence and are eligible. It should be automatic.”
Since the beginning of the year the Clark County Election Department has sent out more than 1,000 letters just like the one Cage received saying he was guilty of a crime for registering to vote.
“We do a match with Metro police on a monthly basis,” said Catherine Smith, Clark County Election Program Supervisor. “If a voter comes up as a match as an ex-felon, we cancel registration and send a letter. Inside the letter we send them a brochure that says what they need to do.”
The Election Department does not check with the department of corrections or the parole and probation office to see if the registrant has finished the sentence, however, because “we couldn’t work that out at the time of the change in the law,” Smith said.
“I don’t believe there is confusion after they receive the letter and read the brochure.”
The brochure that is sent out is a three-panel pamphlet in Spanish and English that, in a few paragraphs, describes the law and gives contact information for various state agencies that provide the appropriate documentation. At the end it says to call PLAN with any questions.
Cage found out he was eligible to vote when he went to see Rake at the PLAN offices in Downtown Las Vegas. Cage wanted help getting his record sealed now that he had surpassed the 15-year waiting period after the conclusion of his sentence. PLAN started seeing a flood of ex-felons interested in voting three or four months ago because of the high level of interest in this year’s presidential race, Rake said.
“It is extremely difficult for people to navigate the bureaucracy,” he said. “Essentially you need a piece of paper showing you went through the system, finished your sentence, and it was a nonviolent crime. But what if the crime was 20 years ago and in another state that automatically restores the right to vote so they don’t issue a paper? Everyone has a different system.”
Nevada is now one of eight states where some people with felony convictions can vote. In two states, Maine and Vermont, you never lose the right to vote, not even while incarcerated. In 13 states those on probation and on parole can vote; in five states only probationers can vote but not parolees; and in 20 states all who have completed their sentence can vote. In two states, Kentucky and Virginia, felon disenfranchisement is permanent.
“A lot of times, especially if it’s out of state, I have to tell the person, ‘I can’t help you.’ It’s frustrating, because the elections department sends them our way,” Rake said.
Proponents of simplifying the law and enfranchising felons say the change would ease the burden on state elections systems, decrease recidivism and put an end to policies that have a disproportionate effect on minorities and poor communities.
“This is sound public policy that will help people get more involved. Voting isn’t a privilege; it is a right that is fundamental to civic life,” Rake said. “People who participate in the political process are less likely to re-offend. Since a disproportionate number of felons come from minority and poor communities, those neighborhoods are grossly underrepresented in elections. So now we have a situation where the people who have been failed by public policy are incapable of voting for the politicians who they feel can effect change.”
Cage has been busy with work recently, and trying to forget the threatening letter, but says he is planning to go to the Federal District Courthouse Downtown and seek out copies of his release papers from 1991. It’s worth it, because he wants to vote. He wants change.
“It is important, because I feel like I have a voice, you know,” Cage said as his tone peaked with excitement. “Because there may be a politician that wants to do things that I think need to be done … my vote can count, too. What kind of shit is this? You just take away all the person’s rights. Can’t vote. Can’t get a job. What can you do? We are worse off than illegal aliens.”