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Unlocking the Vote: Activists and disenfranchised former felons restore voting rights in Rhode Island | The Nation

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Unlocking the Vote: Activists and disenfranchised former felons restore voting rights in Rhode Island

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Daniel Schleifer

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Thursday, November 30

On the evening of Nov. 7, a crowd of 150 students, faith leaders, former prisoners, and community organizers gathered to watch election returns at a Dominican nightclub on the South Side of Providence, R.I. By 10:30, all the races were proceeding as predicted, and the TV reporters had no problem maintaining their dispassionate air--until one of them noticed that with more than 70 percent of precincts reporting, half of Rhode Island had voted to approve Question 2, a proposal to restore voting rights to felons on probation and parole. The reporter broke character. "Um, is anyone surprised about this? Felons voting? How is this question doing this well?"

His incredulousness was not shared by the crowd that was huddled before the televisions. Most in attendance had spent the past four days and nights working to assure approval for Question 2; some had spent the past four months working on it, and a few, like myself, had been working for two years to restore voting rights to 15,000 Rhode Island citizens. The final results revealed that Question 2 had passed with 51.52% of the vote. Rhode Island became the first state to reform a felon disenfranchisement law through a popular vote. A wave of relief, joy and exhaustion swept over us, but we weren't surprised.

Although activists have fought the practice of denying voting rights to felons and ex-felons since the inception of such laws in the mid to late 1800s, our generation first took a hard look at felony disenfranchisement in 2000 when George W. Bush won, by just 537 votes, the deciding state of Florida, which permanently disfranchises all felons and ex-felons. Jeff Uggen and Chris Manza estimate in Locked Out: Felon Disfranchisement and American Democracy that over 1 million Florida citizens cannot vote, and thousands more have been scrubbed from the voting rolls because they happen to have the same name as a felon.

The uneven racial and geographic impact of these laws is staggering. In Florida, 18 percent of African American citizens cannot vote, and until last Tuesday, Rhode Island's black community was in a comparable position. Over half of Rhode Island's disenfranchised came from the state's five most urban communities.

This disproportionate impact is not a coincidence. America is one of the few industrialized democracies with widespread felon disenfranchisement, and these laws have their roots in two singularly American historical moments. Most northern states enacted these laws in the mid 1800s, before the Civil War, concurrent with the termination of property requirements for voting, in order to limit the political power of the poor. Southern states enacted these laws after Reconstruction as part of their effort to undermine the political power of African Americans.

Although much has changed since the nineteenth century, racial and socioeconomic injustice persist in the United States, and there is strong evidence that these contradictions are expressed most clearly in the disproportionate and uneven impact of our criminal justice laws and their implementation.

The efforts leading to our victory last Tuesday consisted of three phases: research, a legislative campaign, and a ballot advocacy campaign. Students from Brown University and Rhode Island College (RIC), working alongside former prisoners, were instrumental at every stage of the campaign. The Rhode Island Right to Vote Campaign was spearheaded by the Rhode Island Family Life Center (FLC), an organization that primarily provides services and support to individuals leaving prison and their families, but also engages in some research and advocacy around the impact of mass incarceration in urban communities.

In the summer of 2004, Nina Keough, then a junior at Brown interning at FLC, began a report entitled "Political Punishment: The Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement for Rhode Island Communities," which tracked the impact of the felon disenfranchisement provision in Rhode Island's constitution. The report, released by FLC in October of 2004, was among the first to map disenfranchisement patterns down to the neighborhood level, and it drew the attention of national media outlets as well as the national Right to Vote Campaign, which provided FLC a grant to hire researcher Marshall Clement as campaign coordinator.

State Senator Harold Metts and State Representative Joseph Almeida, who represent the South Side of Providence--Rhode Island's neighborhood that suffers the worst impact of the disenfranchisement provision--introduced the legislation that placed the proposal on the November 2006 ballot. (In Rhode Island, constitutional amendments must be approved by the General Assembly and then ratified by the voters, except in the rare case of a constitutional convention.)

The campaign needed to find powerful spokespeople if our bill was going to move. By searching the FLC database and working with the public defender, Clement found a corps of former prisoners who genuinely wanted their voting rights back and were willing to tell their stories. Three particularly powerful spokespeople emerged: Koren Carbuccia is a mother and social work student who wanted to vote in school board elections; Andres Idarraga is a young scholar who, over the course of the campaign, got out of prison, began attending the University of Rhode Island, then transferred to Brown and received the prestigious Mellon-Mays Fellowship; and Peter Slom, who would become the chair of the campaign's steering committee, grew up in a prominent family in Newport. He is also a counselor at Rhode Island's juvenile detention center and a married father of two who lives in affluent Charlestown.

With Clement coaching, Carbuccia, Idarraga, and Slom gave very effective testimony to the state legislature. The debate on the State House floor lasted over an hour, and despite a few sensationalist tirades about violent criminals voting to legalize crime, the amendment passed overwhelmingly in both houses of the General Assembly. Constitutional referenda rarely pass the legislature in the year of their initial introduction. According to many legislators, our unprecedented success came largely on the strength of the witnesses our campaign presented. Legislators--even ones representing communities with low incarceration rates--could relate to their stories of redemption and their honest desire to participate in American democracy.

Despite our tight budget (our campaign raised about $350,000 from two foundations, while proponents of a ballot initiative to allow casino gambling spent $15 million), our prospects for victory looked good. Early poll numbers indicated that suburban Rhode Islanders were evenly divided on Question 2, but there was strong support in the cities. Our plan was to rely on press coverage and less expensive forms of advertising (buses, radio, and print instead of television) to keep attrition to a minimum in the suburbs, while organizing at the grassroots in the cities to ensure high voter turnout.

In August, I looked at the amount of time we had, the amount of money we had, and the number of votes we would need to push us over the top in the cities, and I realized that even using the most optimistic "organizer's math," our campaign would not win if we used only paid canvassers. We hired Bruce Reilly, a RIC student and one of Andres Idarraga's best friends from prison, as a volunteer recruiter. He worked with Brown sophomore and Campus Progress student representative Ariel Werner to organize the largest mobilization of Brown and RIC students I have seen in my seven years as a Providence resident.

On many evenings, student volunteers effectively tripled the size of our team of paid canvassers, most of whom were either disenfranchised or had disenfranchised family members. In their efforts to recruit volunteers, Reilly and Werner continuously emphasized three major points to students who were sympathetic to the cause, but who had hundreds of options for extracurricular activities. First, since Rhode Island was the first state to consider reforming its felon disenfranchisement law through a referendum, this campaign could have reverberations in large swing states like Florida that would also need a constitutional amendment to reform their laws. Second, we only needed people through Nov. 7, and third, this was an opportunity to experience the excitement of an electoral campaign without committing oneself to a candidate who might ultimately let you down once in office. With a ballot initiative, what you see is what you get.

As Election Day approached and our database of contacts and volunteers grew, I turned my attention to planning the final four days of our campaign. Ideally, an intensive "get out the vote" program (GOTV) begins the Friday or Saturday before the election, and over the next four days, it essentially repeats all of the work of the past few months--three times. This demands an incredible amount of labor, and the workers have to be familiar with the issue. We were lucky that one of our funders made a little extra money available for the final days, so that we could offer a stipend to canvassers who could give us either all four days or all 15 hours we needed from them on Election Day, without which we would have fallen short of the number of canvassers needed for an intensive six city GOTV push.

At around 5:00 p.m. on Election Day, I could have told you with one phone call exactly where to find any of 200 people scattered in 53 precincts around Rhode Island, and, confident that those 200 people knew exactly what to do for the next four hours, I shook off sleep deprivation and hit the streets of Providence with the last wave of South Side canvassers. Cassandra Cameron, one of our paid canvassers, sent me to the southernmost precinct in the city, a middle class white and Latino neighborhood with a significant African-American population as well. I spent the next three hours verifying that all of our contacts in the precinct had voted, arranging a ride to the polls for a woman who still hadn't, and finished the evening by handing out literature at the precinct's polling place.

According to the final election results, we won by 11,294 votes. In the six cities where we canvassed, however, we won by a combined total of 18,564 votes. In the other 33 cities and towns, we lost by a combined total of 7,270 votes. It may be counter-intuitive, but I believe that most of the people involved in the fieldwork were pleased to win by such a small margin. Our victory was an affirmation that an inexperienced but dedicated campaign team with little money can win through hard work and a well-executed strategy.

For more information on Rhode Island's campaign, as well as a link to "Political Punishment," and other campaign publications please visit www.restorethevote.org. Check out the national Right to Vote Campaign at www.righttovote.org.

Daniel Schleifer earned his BA in Ethnic Studies from Brown University. He started with the Rhode Island Right to Vote legislative campaign as assistant to the director and later became interim coordinator of the campaign and eventually field coordinator in the campaign's final months. Currently, he lives in Providence, RI, where he works at the Rhode Island Family Life Center as a researcher and organizer.

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