U.S. lawmakers have struggled for over a year to negotiate a policing reform bill while Democrats have failed to pass signature voting rights legislation. But just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol, Corey Knight has helped usher in a significant change that touches on both of the nation’s major policy debates.
“It's a human rights issue. We all are human beings,” Knight says. Knight, who has a felony conviction, is executive director of the Hope Foundation Re-entry Network and supports restoring voting rights for felons currently serving their sentences.
In 2020, Knight worked with a local councilman to change the law preventing Washington felons from voting while they serve their sentences. Vermont and Maine are the only U.S. states that give imprisoned felons the right to vote. Knight says restoring rights in Washington – where African Americans make up almost half of the population – represents significant progress in the recent push to restore felon voting rights.
“We should be able to vote,” Knight told VOA. “The power of vote – which we see is the numbers right? – and that's what intimidates people. People of color – a whole lot of us incarcerated. And so, if all of us get together and vote, it kind of terminates them trying to close our mouth.”
According to The Sentencing Project, felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects people of color. One out of every 16 African Americans is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. The laws preventing felons from voting often date back to midcentury Jim Crow laws aimed at suppressing the black vote in the United States.
In the past 25 years, more than half of U.S. states have changed laws to expand voting access to individuals with felony convictions. In the past two years, governors in Kentucky, Iowa and Wyoming have issued executive orders restoring voting rights to felons in varying degrees.
Felon disenfranchisement received renewed attention during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary contest and has remained in the spotlight as part of a broader conversation about voter suppression nationwide and a focus on policing reform in the wake of last year’s protests over the death of George Floyd.
The Sentencing Project estimates about 5.17 million people nationwide are barred from voting due to a felony conviction. Public opposition to restoring voting rights for felons currently serving their sentences is still high, according to a 2019 Quinnipiac poll that found 65% of registered voters “strongly disapproved” of those efforts.
Opponents say currently serving felons have broken the social contract.
“Individuals who are convicted of serious crimes and who are serving time in prison, have shown that they are not willing to abide by the rules and laws that we have set up as society,” said Hans von Spankovsky, a Heritage Foundation fellow and manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative.
“So why would you give them the ability through voting to decide what those rules and regulations are – ones that they say they're not going to abide by? Or why would you give them the ability to, for example, elect the prosecutors who are charged with enforcing those laws?”
Von Spankovsky says it is good public policy to restore voting rights to felons who have fully repaid their debts to society by serving their sentences and paying all outstanding fines. Currently, that is the process for felons seeking the right to vote in 27 U.S. states.
But that process proved to be complicated in Florida, where voters passed Amendment 4 restoring voting rights for released felons in 2018. The state legislature followed up on passage of that ballot initiative by requiring individuals to pay all court fees and local fines or risk a new felony conviction for voting.
Neel Sukhatme, a professor of law at Georgetown University, notes the state of Florida has made it almost impossible for people to determine how much they owe. There’s no consistent record keeping among the state’s 67 counties and no clear way for individuals to obtain those records.
Sukhatme co-founded Free Our Vote to provide a database of information collected from Florida counties to help released felons determine if they needed to pay those fees.
“The right to vote is fundamental, that it shouldn't really matter how much money you have, whether or not you have the ability to vote. And so I was troubled from a moral standpoint, from a legal standpoint, as a lawyer. I was troubled because it seemed unconstitutional to me what the state was trying to do,” Sukhatme says.
Sukhatme estimates about 20,000 individuals were able to determine what they owed through the program and regain their right to vote. That’s a small fraction of the estimated 2 million Florida residents convicted of a felony who could have been eligible to vote in the key swing state in the 2020 election.
While Florida has the highest felon disenfranchisement rate in the nation, efforts are under way to restore voting rights in states like New York and California where there are also large felon populations. Knight says he is continual contact with activists in those states to share what he learned from changing the law in Washington, D.C.
Knight said, “We definitely want to assist in every way to make sure that we can help people of color have a voice and have their human rights back.”