Thursday, July 12, 2012

The New JIM Crow

Prison-based gerrymandering in Michelle Alexander’s The...
Prison-based gerrymandering in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow
by Leah Sakala, April 10, 2012

In a recent op-ed, Professor Jess Rigelhaupt argues that the Obama administration needs to prioritize ending mass incarceration. He draws on Michelle Alexander’s powerful arguments about how mass incarceration fuels racial inequality in Alexander’s new book, The New Jim Crow. Both Professor Rigelhaupt and Professor Alexander point to the problem of prison-based gerrymandering in state legislative districts as an example.
As Professor Alexander explains on page 188:
Under the usual-residence rule, the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominantly white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come. This has enormous consequences for the redistricting process. White rural communities that house prisons wind up with more people in state legislatures representing them, while poor communities of color lose representatives because it appears their population has decreased. This policy is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60 percent of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even through they could not vote.
Her book provides a comprehensive picture of how mass incarceration is jeopardizing our democratic system and our wellbeing as a nation.
And if you’re interested in learning more about the parallels between prison-based gerrymandering and the infamous three-fifths clause, check out John Drake’s new journal article, “Locked Up and Counted Out: Bringing an End to Prison-based Gerrymandering,” or my blog post about prison-based gerrymandering in Wisconsin.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Supreme court 6 12/gerrymandering lessened in Maryland

Supreme Court  June 2012
Gerrymandering Lessened in Maryland: prison town cannot count prisoners as its residents

Maryland prisoners to be counted at last known address not prison address
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling Monday that allows Maryland to count prison inmates at their last known addresses - rather than their prison addresses - for redistricting purposes, and upholds the map approved by the General Assembly last year.

Activists had sued the state, saying that the newly drawn congressional districting map violated the U.S. Constitution. The map was developed by a committee appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and based on census data and statewide input. It was also drawn to reflect a 2010 Maryland law that counts prisoners at their last known addresses, which differs from the U.S. Census Bureau's  policy of counting inmates at their prison addresses, used by most states.

Critics of the federal policy say it has artificially inflated the populations and voting power of the often-rural districts that contain prisons, while reducing the influence of urban areas where many inmates formerly lived.

“These prisoners do not use the roads or the resources in that [prison’s] district,” said Delegate Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk, Prince George’s Democrat. “They end up being released and going back to the communities where they lived prior to being incarcprionerated.”

The Supreme Court issued its decision based on briefs in the District Court case and did not hear oral arguments.

“We’re disappointed in the terms of the decision,” said Radamase Cabrera, spokesman for the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee, a black voting rights group that helped back the lawsuit. The lawsuit also claimed the maps were drawn to illegally dilute minority influence.

“But we will continue doing what we need to do about getting the referendum on the ballot,” Mr. Cabrera said.
Opponents of the congressional map are trying to <$>petition it to referendum and have until Saturday to turn in 55,736 valid voter signatures to the state.

Organizers, some of whom argue the map disenfranchises black voters as well as Republicans, turned in 26,763 of those signatures last month.

Maryland is one of just four states that counts prisoners at their former home addresses for congressional and legislative redistricting purposes, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The others are California, Delaware and New York.

The legislation instituting the change was sponsored by Ms. Pena-Melnyk and Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, Baltimore Democrat.

Supporters argued that most prisoners have no connection to their prison communities and return within a matter of months or years to live and vote in their former hometowns.

The new policy is expected to most prominently protect representation in Baltimore, which has steadily lost residents and legislative seats over the years. The city could now see a slower rate of loss...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Federal Lawsuit Faults Ohio for Disfranchising Thousands of Eligible Voters

CINCINNATI, OH - August 17 - The Prison Reform Advocacy Center (PRAC) filed suit in federal court today in an effort to remedy the disfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters statewide. The suit asks that 100,000 people with felony convictions in Ohio be given immediate notice of their voting rights so they can register before the October 4th deadline for the November 2, 2004 election.
Ohio law gives people with felony convictions the right to vote once released from incarceration, regardless of whether they are on parole, probation, or any other form of community supervision. A study released by PRAC two weeks ago, available at, found that Ohio elections officials’ knowledge of this law varies widely by region. Specifically, PRAC found that twenty-one boards of election, including the one located in Cincinnati, tell eligible voters that they cannot vote while on probation or parole.
While the number of people with felony convictions who have been misinformed regarding their voting rights is unknown, PRAC’s study conservatively estimated that 20% of the 34,000 Ohioans currently on community supervision, or approximately 7,000 people, have been harmed. To correct the problem PRAC proposes that all people with previous felony convictions released from prison during the past five years, approximately 100,000 individuals, be provided accurate notice of how, where and by when to register for the November 2nd election.
“The relief we propose is the only way to ensure that all people with felony convictions who have been harmed receive timely and accurate information about their voting rights. We are asking that the court act quickly because time is of the essence,” said David Singleton, PRAC’s Executive Director. “This segment of voters in Ohio could very well make the difference in this year’s presidential race,” Singleton added.
"The Ohio survey proves that people are losing their right to vote every day by receiving misinformation from officials who do not understand the law," said Deborah Goldberg, Democracy Program Director at the Brennan Center for Justice. "To make democracy a reality, officials in Ohio must cure their mistakes and help to educate voters about their rights--as they have begun to do in New York, where a similar survey demonstrated similar problems."
The Brennan Center is part of the Right to Vote Campaign, a national effort dedicated to ending felony disfranchisement laws which deny the right to vote to 4.7 million Americans, overwhelmingly African American and including over 500,000 veterans and almost 700,000 women (
PRAC filed the suit on behalf of C.U.R.E.–Ohio and the Racial Fairness Project, grassroots organizations active in registering former Ohio felons to vote. The complaint names Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell and 21 County of Boards of Elections, including the Hamilton County Board of Election.

Common Dreams NewsCenter is a non-profit news service
providing breaking news and views for the Progressive Community.
The press release posted here has been provided to Common Dreams NewsWire by one of the many progressive organizations who make up America's Progressive Community. If you wish to comment on this press release or would like more information, please contact the organization directly.
*all times Eastern US (GMT-5:00)
AUGUST 17, 2004
11:26 AM CONTACT: Prison Reform Advocacy Center
David Singleton, (513) 421-110

Prison based gerrymandering

Prison-based gerrymandering's striking resemblance to the infamous three-fifths clause
by Leah Sakala, September 9, 2011 gerrymandering's striking resemblance to the infamous three-fifths clause
by Leah Sakala, September 9, 2011

I was recently watched some striking footage of a Wisconsin Assembly hearing from September, 2009, about Assembly Joint Resolution 63 to exclude incarcerated persons from redistricting data. The video begins with a discussion of how to count incarcerated people in Wisconsin, but then quickly turns into a heated debate about how prison-based gerrymandering relates to our nation’s conflicted history with the concepts of person hood and equal representation. To me, the fact the conversation veered into such fundamental questions shows how sometimes the solutions to prison-based gerrymandering can be counter intuitive.
Here’s why:
When incarcerated people are counted as residents of the district in which they are incarcerated, the actual residents of that district get undue additional political clout and the voters who live everywhere else lose out. The ideal solution is to completely solve the problem by counting incarcerated people at their home addresses. But, although it may sound strange at first, the second best option is for incarcerated populations to be removed from redistricting data altogether. The video I watched was about this second approach. Wisconsin 2009 Assembly Joint Resolution 63 sponsored by Representative Fred Kessler proposed to remove prison counts from Wisconsin’s redistricting data.
But this idea didn’t sit well with Representative Kleefisch. Given the United States racially disproportionate incarceration rates and pernicious history of denying racial minorities their civil rights, he asked, doesn’t the proposal to exclude prisoners from redistricting counts hark back to the infamous practice of denying certain individuals their full personhood?
The problem with the three-fifths clause was that slave populations were used to artificially inflate the political power of the very same people who went to great lengths to deny them their right to personal sovereignty, much less their right to vote
Representative Kelda Helen Roys responded to this question by drawing an apt historical connection to the infamous 1787 constitutional clause that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of Congressional redistricting, even though they were denied the right to vote. The three-fifths clause had the effect of using slave population numbers to artificially beef up the political power of the Southern, white, property-owning voters who were invested in maintaining and expanding the slave system. But the problem with the three-fifths clause wasn’t that the slaves were counted as only a fraction of a person. After all, since their “political clout” went right into the hands of the very people who exploited them, the political distortion would have been even greater had they been counted as full people. The problem was that slave populations were used to artificially inflate the political power of the very same people who went to great lengths to deny them their right to personal sovereignty, much less their right to vote.
When a government engages in prison-based gerrymandering, incarcerated people, who disproportionately come from minority and urban communities, are stripped of their right to vote but still included in the population counts of the disproportionately white districts in which they are incarcerated. Their political clout is essentially handed through the bars to the real residents of the community that contains the prison, giving certain people more political say simply by virtue of their residential proximity to a large prison. This also gives the legislators who represent districts that include prisons the power to use incarcerated people’s bodies to count against their own interests by supporting punitive criminal justice legislation, as such representatives are utterly free from accountability to their non-voting “constituents” behind bars.
It’s just as unfair as it sounds. And Representative Roys’s observation about the connection between prison-based gerrymandering and the three-fifths clause isn’t abstract history. Let’s look at a contemporary example.
New York State Senator Nozzolio represents the 54th senate district, which includes several large prisons. Senator Nozzolio has a long history of opposing the New York bill that ended prison-based gerrymandering, insisting that the people incarcerated within his district are unquestionably his constituents. But does he make an effort to ensure that his so-called constituents in prison have a say in the legislature? Not quite. “I haven’t really focused on [prisoners],” he stated, admitting that he is far more attentive to the needs of the people who work in prisons than the people who are incarcerated in them. In fact, Nozzolio was a staunch opponent of the successful movement to overturn New York’s harmful and unpopular Rockefeller drug laws, which had resulted in locking up unprecedented numbers of non-violent offenders for long amounts of time. Perhaps Senator Nozzolio would not have felt so strongly about keeping the draconian Rockefeller drug policies if they hadn’t been responsible for importing a sizable portion of his “constituents.”
But thankfully it’s not always true that legislators with prisons in their districts feel so comfortable helping themselves to imported political clout.
Senator Pugh and Delegate Pena-Melnyk of Maryland, for example, both represent districts with large prisons. But unlike Senator Nozzolio, Senator Pugh and Delegate Pena-Melnyk recognized the problem of prison-based gerrymandering and were the lead sponsors of the successful 2010 legislation that ended prison-based gerrymandering in Maryland.
Taking incarcerated people out of redistricting data entirely is ultimately preferable to allowing their representational clout to be handed over to the wrong community.
So, when Wisconsin Representative Kessler proposed to exclude prison populations for redistricting purposes, his goal was to stop granting unwarranted political clout to districts that contain prisons. Taking incarcerated people out of redistricting data entirely is ultimately preferable to counting them as residents of the prisons in which they’re incarcerated and allowing their representational clout to be handed over to the wrong community. But, ideally, Wisconsin and other states with prison-based gerrymandering problems would take a tip from states like New York and Maryland and pass statewide legislation to ensure that incarcerated people are counted in the right place: their home communities.
Comments (1)
One Response
1. Dan Dick says, 2 days, 10 hours after publication:
Liked the historical analogy, and calling attention to legislators with a conflict of interest due to “imported political clout.” Great image of prisoners’ political clout being “handed through the bars to the real residents of the community.” That would make an effective editorial cartoon.

Friday, August 28, 2009

introduction: prisoners and human rights

Editorial NY times
Prisoners and Human Rights
Published: July 31, 2006
The United States has the worst record in the free world when it comes to stripping convicted felons of the right to vote. In contrast, most European countries hold that right so dear that they bring ballot boxes into prisons.
This point was underscored last week in a scalding report from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which held hearings earlier this month to determine how well the United States was complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which this country ratified in 1992. The hearings heard testimony about secret detentions, kidnappings and accusations of torture.
But they also dealt with how the United States treats its prison inmates, particularly the disenfranchisement laws that bar more than five million convicted felons from the polls. The American representative weakly defended the practice’s legality, but dodged explaining its rationale, saying the rules come from the states, not the federal government.
In a common-sense report made public Friday, the committee said that blanket disenfranchisement was inconsistent with the covenant and served no rehabilitative purpose. Noting that disenfranchisement disproportionately affects minorities, the report urged the United States to restore voting rights to citizens who have served their sentences or who are released on parole. The report is not legally binding. But it reminds us how poorly we treat ex-offenders compared with democracies abroad.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What if 5.3 Million More Americans Could Vote?

By Erika Wood,
AlterNetPosted on April 21, 2008,

This is a big year for American democracy. Hundreds of thousands of new voters are not only registering, but are actually showing up at the polls. States whose primary races have never counted before are suddenly the center of attention. Voters in Wyoming, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Kentucky, who have long gone ignored during primary season, finally find themselves with a voice and a vote. This year they matter.

Despite this, our democracy still falls far short of its promise to be a government that truly represents the will of its citizens. Across the country there are 5.3 million Americans who are denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction in their past. Nearly 4 million of these people are not in prison; they live, work, pay taxes, and raise families in our communities, but remain disenfranchised for years, often for decades, and sometimes for life.

States vary widely on when they restore voting rights to former prisoners. Maine and Vermont do not disenfranchise people with convictions; even prisoners may vote there. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia disenfranchise people only while they are incarcerated; five states disenfranchise those who are incarcerated or on parole, but allow people on probation to vote; 20 states disenfranchise people in prison, on parole, and on probation; and 10 states permanently disenfranchise some categories of people who have completed their correctional supervision. Kentucky and Virginia are the last two remaining states that permanently disenfranchise all people with felony convictions, unless they apply for and receive individual, discretionary clemency from the governor.

Jim Crow Roots
To fully appreciate how these laws compromise our democracy, it is important to understand their deep roots in the troubled history of American race relations. In the late 1800s these laws spread as part of a larger backlash against the adoption of the Reconstruction Amendments -- the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution -- which ended slavery, granted equal citizenship to freed slaves, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
Over time, Southern Democrats sought to solidify their hold on the region by modifying voting laws in ways that would exclude African-Americans from the polls. Despite their newfound eligibility to vote, many freed slaves remained effectively disenfranchised.

Violence and intimidation were rampant. The legal barriers employed -- including literacy tests, residency requirements, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes -- while race-neutral on their face, were intentional barriers to African-American voting.

Felony disenfranchisement laws were a key part of this effort. Between 1865 and 1900, 18 states adopted laws restricting the voting rights of criminal offenders. By 1900, 38 states had some type of felon voting restriction, most of which disenfranchised convicted felons until they received a pardon. At the same time, states expanded the criminal codes to punish offenses that they believed targeted freedmen, including vagrancy, petty larceny, miscegenation, bigamy, and receiving stolen goods. Aggressive arrest and conviction efforts followed, motivated by the practice of "convict leasing," whereby former slaves were convicted of crimes and then leased out to work the very plantations and factories from which they had ostensibly been freed. Thus targeted criminalization and felony disenfranchisement combined to produce both practical re-enslavement and the legal loss of voting rights, usually for life, which effectively suppressed the political power of African Americans for decades.

The disproportionate impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on people of color continues to this day. Nationwide, 13 percent of African-American men have lost the right to vote, a rate that is seven times the national average. In eight states, more than 15 percent of African-Americans cannot vote due to a felony conviction, and four of those states -- Arizona, Iowa, Kentucky, and Nebraska -- disenfranchise more than 20 percent of their African-American voting-age population.

These statistics mirror stark racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A recent study by the Pew Center on the States revealed that 1 in 100 Americans is now behind bars. That figure is startling enough, but the study also reports that 1 in 9 African-American men between the ages of 20 and 34 is in prison.

The Ripple Effect of Disenfranchisement
Felony disenfranchisement laws do not only impact those who lose their voting rights. Entire communities lose their political capital when their citizens cannot vote. Denying the vote to one person has a ripple effect, dramatically decreasing the political power of urban and minority communities.

Evidence suggests that disenfranchising the head of a household can discourage his or her entire family from civic participation. Many people's first experience with voting or political engagement comes through their parents -- by joining them at a town meeting, attending a school board hearing, or accompanying them into the voting booth. A parent can provide critical "how-to's" of voting, including such basics as how to register and where to vote. In fact, of the various factors included in the study, the parent's political participation had the greatest effect on the child's initial decision to vote.

Andres Idarraga, who recently had his right to vote restored by a recent change to Rhode Island's law, explained, "coming from a family in which voting had rarely, if ever, been discussed, this was a new beginning."

Throughout the country, minority communities have lost political influence thanks to felony disenfranchisement laws. In the last 25 years, as incarceration rates skyrocketed and African-Americans were sent to prison at a rate seven times that of whites, the political power of minority communities has been decimated. It's a simple equation: communities with high rates of people with felony convictions have fewer votes to cast. Consequently, all residents of these communities, not just those with convictions, lose their political influence.

What's more, even when people with felony convictions are eligible to vote, they are often de facto disenfranchised due to bureaucratic barriers. In 2003, Alabama could not process more than 80 percent of applications within statutory time limits, and completely failed to respond to dozens of applications. And in New York, Brennan Center surveys have repeatedly uncovered widespread confusion and misinformation among elections officials. In 2005, one third of local election boards mistakenly advised that people could not vote while on probation, and many illegally required unnecessary documentation before allowing people to register.

Dispelling Disenfranchisement Myths, Restoring Democracy
Fortunately, there are signs of progress. Advocates, policy-makers, and some unusual allies have made great strides towards restoring voting rights, and have built significant national momentum towards building a more just and inclusive democracy.

Critics of voting restoration argue that disenfranchisement is an appropriate punishment for breaking the law. But in fact, many in law enforcement have come to believe that felony disenfranchisement laws do more harm than good. The American Probation and Parole Association recently released a resolution calling for restoration of voting rights upon completion of prison, finding that "disenfranchisement laws work against the successful reentry of offenders." Many realize that, in terms of public safety, bringing people into the political process makes them stakeholders, helping to steer former offenders away from future crimes. As one Kentucky prosecutor wrote, "Voting shows a commitment to the future of the community." Branding people as political outsiders by barring them from the polls disrupts reentry into the community and does not do anything to keep people from re-offending. There is absolutely no credible evidence showing that continuing to disenfranchise people after release from prison serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose. Disenfranchisement has nothing to do with being "tough on crime."

Since 1997, 16 states have reformed their laws to expand the franchise or ease voting rights restoration procedures. Recent reforms include an executive order signed by then-Governor Tom Vilsack in Iowa which restored voting rights to 80,000 Iowa citizens on Independence Day, 2005. On Election Day 2006, Rhode Island voters were the first in the country to approve a state constitutional amendment authorizing automatic restoration of voting rights to people as soon as they are released from prison. The Rhode Island Department of Corrections became a voter registration agency, and now every individual is handed a voter registration form on the day they leave prison. In April 2007, Florida Governor Charlie Crist issued new clemency rules ending that state's policy of permanent disenfranchisement for all felony offenders. Also in April 2007, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed a law streamlining the state's complicated restoration system by automatically restoring voting rights upon completion of sentence.
This law also eliminated the requirement that people in Maryland pay off any court-imposed fees and fines before being able to register to vote.

And just last month, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear eliminated some of the burdensome requirements his predecessor imposed on people trying to get their voting rights restored. People with felony convictions are disenfranchised for life in Kentucky and can only regain their right to vote by receiving clemency from the governor.

Beshear's predecessor had required all applicants to provide three character references and write an essay explaining why they should get their right to vote back. While Kentucky still has a long way to go, Beshear's executive action was certainly an important step.

Still, millions of U.S. citizens continue to be denied the right to vote. This year, Congress has decided to address the issue on a national level. Senator Russ Feingold and Representative John Conyers will soon introduce the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill that seeks to restore voting rights in federal elections to all Americans who have been released from prison and are living in the community. In February, Senator Feingold, joined by former Republican Congressman and Bush I cabinet member, Jack Kemp, wrote, "once the criminal justice system has determined that [people] are ready to return to the community, they should receive the rights and responsibilities that come with that status, and should not continue to be relegated to second-class citizenship."

The energy and optimism spreading across our country this election season is palpable. But our democracy stands for nothing if not the fundamental tenet that each citizen is entitled to one vote, and each vote counts the same regardless of who casts it. The promise of our democracy will never be realized if 4 million Americans remain disenfranchised. It is time to end this last blanket barrier to the ballot box.

Erika Wood is Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law where she directs the Right to Vote project. Her most recent publication is "Restoring the Right to Vote."© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.View this story online at:
Posted by lois at April 22, 2008 11:11 PM

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The sound of silence

The Nation.
February 12, 2007
The Sounds of Silence
This is the third installment in Walter Mosley's cycle of essays on Cultural Famine. The other installments appeared in the October 23 and December 18 issues. —The Editors
the word suffrage has nothing to do with the verb to suffer,or so my Oxford dictionary tells me. But the poet in me sees
a connection. Voting is a serious enterprise. My choices of who speaks for me, decisions about laws that govern me
and parties that represent my interests are the most impor­tant activities in my sociopolitical life. My ability to understand and make choices in the political arena is therefore paramount for me and my country. And if I fail to choose correctly or, even worse, neglect to participate in this enterprise, a whole nation, maybe an entire world, will suffer.
All Americans should vote. Every last one of us who is eligi­ble should enter that ballot booth and punch out our choices.
Who should be eligible? Every living, breathing citizen of this land regardless of race, gender, intelligence or criminal history.
Millions of convicted felons across the nation, once they have served their sentence, find they are not allowed to par­ticipate in the electoral process—the fact of their conviction barring them from the very act that defines our national iden­tity and our citizenship. This is possibly a worse sentence than the one they have already served. If a woman cannot vote, if a man cannot cast his ballot, they are being punished again for a crime they have already paid for. And the punishment is the abrogation of their nationality. Not only are these ex-convicts punished but the whole nation suffers, as we are deprived of the participation of our full citizenry.
And there's another problem: The penal system in the United States is both racist and classist. Staggering numbers of our convicts are illiterate, from impoverished backgrounds and of color. Many thousands more are severely mentally ill or afflicted with learning disabilities or retardation. It's not that other classes of people don't commit crimes; it's that they don't get convicted at the same rates as those who cannot afford adequate legal representation. Poverty, more than any other cause, fills our prisons with potentially productive and positive citizens.
Citizens. It doesn't matter what crime you've committed; if you are a citizen of this nation, then you will continue to be one. No matter if you kite checks, get into bar brawls, murder for hire or tunnel into banks. It doesn't matter if you have car­ried an illegal weapon or even committed some heinous crime against children or the elderly. No matter what you've done you are still a citizen, and as a citizen you have certain inalien­able rights. And the most important of those rights is the franchise to vote.
How can I make such an outlandish claim?
The Census.
Every decade the government sends out its bean counters to enumerate Americans in their places of residence with tons
of attendant data including race, gender, geographic location, profession, age and a thousand other factors. One use for this Big Count is to tell the government how to structure the House of Representatives and how to apportion monies.
So, if you live in a town of 1,500 women, children and men and your town council votes to allow a private prison to be built within your borders, a prison that will house 2,500 souls, let's say, then the next census will count 4,000 residents in your little hamlet. Four thousand residents and fewer than half of them can vote. Four thousand residents and most of them cannot take advantage of what the government has to offer.
How do we deal with this problem? Ignore it? Revoke the political humanity of all prisoners? Say that it's their problem for being born poor white or black or brown? Because that's why they're there.
Many young black and brown men and women are incarcer­ated for extraordinarily long terms because of the constitution­ally questionable practice of sentencing according to whether the defendant is gang-related.
Gang-related. That means because the defendant was seen in the company of his cousin Jo-Jo from across the street (Jo-Jo, who did nickel for drug possession and who got gang tattoos in the joint to protect his ass). Because the defendant was seen with his cousin he is to be considered to have some level of membership in a gang. And who testifies? Police officers who may or may not have seen the accused drinking a beer on Jo-Jo's porch.
These sorely pressed men and women are human beings, citizens of this land.
Voting is not a privilege but a responsibility that each and every American bears. Allowing prisoners and ex-convicts to vote will keep us honest. The laws, good and bad, affect them as much if not more than the rest of us. And voting will not give them more money or freedom to run the streets and commit crimes (or drink beers). Voting will help to articulate the valid needs and perspectives of our millions of convicted felons.
And what if Tiny Town USA decides that it can't support a prison that might tip its mayoral election? Too bad. These are human beings we're talking about—not slaves or beasts. No matter how well hidden they are, no matter how success­fully they have been silenced, these prisoners deserve every right afforded to any American. They're already incarcerated. They're already doing time. They have been found guilty of breaking the law in our flawed system and sentenced. But they have not been found evil; they have not been relieved of their citizenship.
Let's allow ex-convicts, and convicts too, to become a part of our political dialogue. Let's make our elected officials responsible to all Americans. And let's have those Americans bring new information to the dialogue.
Maybe, just maybe, they will tell us some things that might make us a stronger, more just union. walter mosley
Walter Mosley's latest book is Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel.

Democracy Behind Bars

By Cole Krawitz, AlterNet. Posted April 25, 2006.

Author Sasha Abramsky talks about how mass incarceration -- and the resulting disfranchisement of millions of Americans -- is destroying our democracy.

In his new book, "Conned: How Millions of Americans Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House," award-winning journalist Sasha Abramsky takes us on a journey across the nation, documenting through personal interviews of people in prison, former prisoners, state legislators and advocates how felon disfranchisement laws fundamentally undermine America's democratic ideals.

Today, nearly 5 million Americans are disfranchised from the right to vote either because they are in prison, on parole or probation, or because they live in a state that extends disfranchisement beyond the end of one's sentence. Racial, ethnic and economic disparities in the criminal justice system, and the "war on drugs" have resulted in the most severe impact hitting communities of color. Where African-Americans comprise only 12.2 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, they make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted of drug offenses, causing critics to call the war on drugs the "New Jim Crow." Nationally, an estimated 13 percent of African-American men are unable to vote because of a felony conviction. That's seven times the national average.

The United States is the only "democracy" in which people who have served their sentences can still lose their right to vote. As Jamaica S., a 25-year-old on probation in Tennessee who lost her right to vote shared in "Conned," "It seems when you're convicted of a felony, the scarlet letter is there. You take it everywhere with you."

We met up with Sasha to learn more about his time writing "Conned," the impact of disfranchisement and the reform measures being fought at the state level to repair our broken democracy.

Cole Krawitz: Sasha, tell us how you started to cover the impact of disfranchisement and voter restoration on the nation.

Sasha Abramsky: I had been writing about criminal justice issues for years, and was particularly fascinated with the broader political and economic impact of a series of policy choices made from the 1970s to the present day that had the effect of massively expanding the country's criminal justice system. The numbers were extraordinary: America had gone from having fewer than half a million people in jail and prison in the early 1970s to having over two million people behind bars by the turn of the century. I knew that, as the war on drugs, in particular, played out, it was having a huge effect on labor markets, on family structure, on community viability in poor neighborhoods; quite simply, in many instances so many people were being hauled off to jail and prison that entire communities were being dislocated. I also knew that ex-prisoners faced an array of post-sentence penalties -- from restrictions on what kinds of jobs they could get through to denial of welfare benefits, student loans and public housing if their felony convictions were drug-related. I had also heard that there were limits placed on their voting rights.

The day after the 2000 presidential election, I posted a story on Mother Jones online about a "purge" of suspected felons and about the impact it had clearly had on the Gore-Bush outcome. From there, I was hooked. The topic was, quite simply, too juicy to ignore.

CK: I was fascinated by your choice to use Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" to help narrate "Conned." Why de Tocqueville?

SA: De Tocqueville has always fascinated me. He's a European aristocrat who comes over to America in the 1830s to study the country's prison system; and he ends up spending nine months touring the country, absolutely intrigued by its democratic possibilities and by the expanding institutions of democracy and culture of democracy that he sees all around. In some instances he romanticizes the country -- and he certainly underestimates the central role of slavery. But his enthusiasm for the best aspects of American life is infectious.

Like de Tocqueville, I also grew up in Europe; in London. And I, too, have found myself, as an adult, fascinated by America's culture and politics.

In deciding to travel around the country for several months exploring what I saw as a major failing of America's democratic institutions -- its failure to protect the vote for millions of Americans caught up in a seemingly ever-expanding penal system -- I wanted a literary companion who could be used to compare the country's democratic potential with the somewhat more tawdry realities I was encountering. De Tocqueville struck me as the perfect companion. Over four months, his writings continually provided insight and prescient observations. I hope that, in using de Tocqueville in this way, my book becomes something more than a narrow criminal justice book, becoming instead a commentary on American democracy, its successes and its shortfalls.

CK: One of the myths that I think "Conned" strongly helps dispel is the idea that people who have been disfranchised don't want to vote. Why do some legislators continue to disregard how, when people are actually asked if they want to vote, they overwhelming say yes, and in states where law allows and advocates have helped let people know about their rights, that people do vote?

SA: There's a pervasive stereotype out there that criminals, as a group, have absolutely no political interests or desire to participate in any communal goings-on. Now, in reality there is no such thing as a single, monolithic "criminal type." Some people convicted of crimes are indeed utterly sociopathic -- hardened, violent and predatory and, yes, it may well be true that these individuals (a) wouldn't want to vote, and that (b) we as a society are safer with them behind bars and better off not participating politically. But you can't craft umbrella disenfranchisement legislation for all felons based on the behaviors and attitudes of a minority of felons.

The large majority of people who get caught up in the criminal justice system do not fit the sociopathic profile: In fact, over one million jail and prison inmates were sentenced after committing nonviolent offenses. They commit crimes, many of them drug-related or generated by dire poverty, they serve their time, and at the end of their sentence, they want to get on with their lives. Now, some of these men and women are apolitical -- just like millions of their nonfelon counterparts -- and don't see the importance of voting. Many of them, however, desperately want to vote and feel shamed and, in a sense, emasculated by being unable to vote.

It was this burning desire to vote, expressed to me in numerous interviews I conducted around the country, that most surprised me. Before starting my reporting, to a degree I'd bought into the stereotype: I'd assumed I was covering a story with a vast philosophical implication, one that went to the heart of theories of democracy and universal suffrage, but with only limited practical impact, precisely because I'd assumed most felons wouldn't vote even if they could.

In a sense, I thought, going in, that Florida 2000, when the nonvotes of felons clearly mattered, was an aberration rather than something that spoke to a larger issue. Instead, I found people in state after state, many in states with closely divided electorates, who were absolutely devastated by not being allowed to vote. There were people like Jamaica S., who had been convicted of a low-end felony, had been put on probation instead of being sent to prison, but had lost her voting rights; there was a 30-something-year-old man who owned a small taxi fleet, who couldn't vote because of a drug crime from when he was a teenager; there was a furniture store employee in rural Virginia who'd been trying for the better part of a decade, without success, to get back his voting rights after being convicted of a drug crime.

To me, that became the central focus of my book: the fact that so many people who so want to participate in the political process are being told by their own government officials that they cannot and should not vote.

CK: Public opinion data shows strong support for reform -- 80 percent of the public supports restoration of voting rights for ex-felons who have completed their sentences, and 64 percent and 62 percent respectively support the right of probationers and parolees to vote. Has this impacted or translated into legislative action?

SA: Over the past several years, many states have enacted limited reforms. In Maryland, for example, permanent disenfranchisement was replaced by a waiting period - which itself is now being challenged by Democratic legislatures. In Alabama, at least in theory, the process by which felons can apply to regain their vote has been simplified, though only to a limited degree. New Mexico has abandoned permanent disenfranchisement, as have several other states since 2000. Last year, Iowa governor Tom Vilsack signed an executive order granting clemency regarding voting rights to tens of thousands of ex-felons.

Yet, a core number of holdout states remain, and unfortunately, these are the states with the largest concentration of disenfranchised citizens: Florida, Virginia, Alabama still to a large extent has an extremely restricted franchise, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky. And several other states place extreme, though not permanent, restrictions on the voting rights of felons.

CK: You start your trip not in Florida or New York, but in Seattle, Wash., highlighting how people's inability to fully pay off court fees -- known as Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) -- were blocking them from the ability to vote. What do you think the impact will be of the recent suit brought forward and won by the ACLU in Washington state overturning this requirement?

SA: I started in Washington state because I wanted this to be a book national in its scope, and I also wanted my readers to really get a sense that this problem was not something that could be located solely in the Old South. Washington, in many ways, is a very liberal state, and thus the scale of disenfranchisement present there was, to me, both surprising and also deeply disturbing. I got a sense that these really were invisible people. In Washington, I interviewed numerous ex-prisoners who were living law-abiding lives in the community, but they were unable to pay off all the fines and court costs levied in responses to criminal actions that, in some instances, had occurred decades earlier. As a result, they were not allowed to vote.

The recent lawsuit overturned this state of affairs. The courts ruled that people couldn't be deprived of their voting rights simply because they were too poor to pay off all their fines and court fees. It's an important ruling, because it significantly broadens the franchise, by many tens of thousands of people - and, remember, this is in a state in which the governor was elected by only a couple hundred votes last time around. The big question, though, and it's one that I address in my book in some detail, is whether theoretical reenfranchisement will translate into a real expansion of the franchise. For this to happen, there's going to have to be a pretty intense public education campaign to make people aware of the new state of affairs surrounding voting rights.

CK: Your book documents how the lack of dissemination of correct information about the law -- by the Department of Corrections or the Board of Elections -- continues to disfranchise thousands. This has been reconfirmed by numerous studies, including a recent survey by Brennan Center for Justice, Legal Action Center and Demos of 63 county boards of elections in New York. How were advocates and organizers on the ground tackling this all too common problem of when policy doesn't get implemented effectively?

SA: It's a huge problem. In state after state, researchers have found, and my reporting confirmed, that many election officials simply do not know the state laws surrounding felons' voting rights. Moreover, other public officials who deal directly with prisoners and ex-prisoners also don't know the law. This goes for probation and parole officials as well as prison employees.

In my book, I tell the story of a group of elderly ladies in Utah who greet prisoners as they come out of prison and try to break through their misapprehensions about voting rights by getting them to register to vote the minute they regain their freedom. I also write about lawyers and community activists in various states who are working to educate public officials as well as ex-prisoners about voting laws in their states.

It's an extremely hard issue to get a handle on, but it's vital if we, as a country, are going to meaningfully seek to restore the principle of universal adult suffrage.

CK: In each state, "Conned" demonstrates the link between racism and voting rights restrictions, as well as many legislators' unwillingness to discuss the issue of race and reenfranchisement -- how has this impacted the work that people are trying to do on the state level?

SA: While the concept of felon disenfranchisement goes back to early-modern Europe, and while colonial-era America imposed restrictions on felons' political participation, it's also undeniable that the South's political leadership in the post-civil war period redefined felony codes with the specific intent of disenfranchising as many African-Americans as possible.

No politician today will go on the record and defend disenfranchisement by embracing the notion that it falls most heavily on African-Americans. In fact, politicians generally swear blind their support for disenfranchisement is entirely race-neutral, and consciously, that might well be the case. But, the impact is clearly not race-neutral. Moreover, I can't conceive of a situation in which one quarter of white voters were removed from the voter rolls that wouldn't immediately lead to dramatic political action to overturn the injustice.

Does it impact how people organize against these laws at the state level? The answer has to be "yes." By default, this is a civil rights issue. Felon disenfranchisement in an era of mass incarceration clearly has done more to undo the gains of the 1965 Voting Rights Act than any other single event. Lawsuits have been filed on 14th and 15th Amendment grounds -- though these lawsuits have generally had very limited results. And, increasingly, black caucuses in state legislatures have embraced the cause of reenfranchisement.

CK: People of color rightfully critique a primarily white political and activist establishment, including many progressives and liberals, as being all too comfortable with the high incarceration rates of people of color in this country, and the resulting disfranchisement from housing, jobs and voting that has disproportionately harmed communities of color. How do you think "Conned" might help to change this so that the systemic problems with, and those created by, our criminal justice system are better understood?

SA: "Conned" demonstrates how "criminal justice" cannot be understood as a hermetically sealed issue. Instead, the policies and practices that have so dramatically enlarged the number of people convicted of felonies in America, and the number of people sentenced to spend parts of their lives behind bars, need to be understood as part of a larger societal transformation.

In an era of mass incarceration, progressives need to be looking for linkages, seeking to explore ways in which society responds to poverty and to social disorder. At the moment, our society has made a series of choices that means we devote an increasing number of dollars to funding punishment-based institutions. At the same time, we dramatically underfund community drug rehabilitation programs, community mental health services, job training programs and the like. Not surprisingly, given these priorities, prisons have come to be first-tier response mechanisms for a host of deep-rooted social problems.

Now, obviously, most everyone wants to live in a peaceful society, one not driven by crime and violence. The question is how best to achieve that. I'd hope that "Conned" opens up the debate here: Does simply locking up ever larger numbers of people best serve this goal? Does an over-reliance on incarceration come with a host of other, largely hidden costs? In the arena of voting rights, my book explores these costs. It looks at how society as a whole is now being impacted by out-of-whack sentencing policies and by the overlap of criminal justice institutions with the voting rights of citizens.

I'd hope that readers of my book come away with a better understanding of the ways in which current incarceration policies produce a host of dysfunctional societal outcomes.

Cole Krawitz is communications and events associate at Demos. His work has appeared in New Voices Magazine, Clamor Magazine, and Nashim journal. Cole can be found blogging on

felons vote in rhode Island: How it was done

Felons vote in Rhode Island • Roadmap of a Progressive Victory

By Nancy Scola, AlterNet. Posted April 3, 2007.

Why a humble campaign for felon voting rights in Rhode Island ended up being a tremendous win for all progressives. In the heaps of victories that progressives joyously celebrated after Election Day, Nov. 7, one has passed remarkably unnoticed. It involves a ballot measure and a grassroots battle for civil rights, but has nothing to do with same-sex marriage or abortion rights -- those typical headline-grabbers.

What you may not have heard is that the people of Rhode Island voted to grant ex-felons the right to vote from the very moment they leave a prison's gates. And in doing so they expanded the civil rights of a demonized class -- rights, it's fair to say, that many voters hardly knew were missing in the first place.

That victory was not just important in the long battle for fair and just voting rights in this country. It's also a case study in "impossible" social action. Understanding how Rhode Island activists managed to make social justice a reality is instructive for anyone working for progressive change.

"Civil death" today

Does "felon" bring to mind only rapists and murders and perhaps drug dealers? It shouldn't, really. In many U.S. states, a felon is anyone convicted of a crime where the sentence could be more than one year. In practice, those offenses include not only rape and murder, but perjury and bouncing a check. Yes, Martha Stewart is a felon, in the eyes of the law.

America has always had felony voting bans. But their popularity spiked in the Reconstruction-era South after the 15th Amendment gave blacks the right to vote. Felony voting restrictions were a seemingly "race neutral" tool, like the poll tax, that in practice kept many blacks from the ballot box. (Currently, 1.4 million African-American men cannot vote because of past felony convictions.)

Historically, the severity of felony disenfranchisement laws in America draw inspiration from the idea of "civil death," a medieval construct that punished criminality by excising the offender from the body politic.

Today, it's not surprising if you hear "felons and "voting" and your mind jumps to Florida. In Gore vs. Bush, you'll remember, that state attempted to erase ex-felons from their voting rolls. In the process, they robbed thousands of legitimate voters of their franchise.

However, voting bans aren't limited to the Deep South. And they are in no way uniform. Three U.S. states -- Florida, Virginia, and Kentucky -- disenfranchise every ex-felon for life. Many other states restore rights at the completion of parole (conditional release) and probation (supervised reentry). Kill someone in Maine, and you can vote from your prison cell. Sell marijuana in Virginia, and for all intents and purposes you're banned from the ballot box for life.

Legal-types call it the "crazy quilt" of voting law, a patchwork of statutes and provisions that differ from state to state. Take the situation in the Four Corners region of America's southwest as an example. In Salt Lake City, Joe Felon gets his voting rights back while walking out of the prison gates. In Denver, he has to wait until his parole term is up. In Santa Fe, he must bide time until his probation term expires, which could be years or even decades. And in Phoenix, he'll never vote again.

Making history in Rhode Island

In light of the fickleness of our antiquated voting laws, let's assume you're convinced that America's legacy of felony disenfranchisement is egregious. Unconscionable, even. Then it's tempting to see restoration movements as a great battle for democracy. But as history is so often less exciting lived than read about later, victory in Rhode Island began in a humble way.

Located in an aging four-story house in Providence's struggling south side, the Family Life Center (FLC) provides social services for ex-prisoners. It was early summer, 2004, and an intern at FLC named Nina Keough needed a project.

She began compiling data on Rhode Islanders ineligible to vote because of criminal convictions. "We didn't necessarily think that much would come" of the project, says Dan Schleifer, FLC outreach director. That some ex-felons couldn't vote in Rhode Island was mostly a "curiosity."

But it turned out that the resulting 12-page report, "Political Punishment: The Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement for Rhode Island Communities," was a gripping read. It found more than 15,000 Rhode Islanders banned from the ballot box. One in five black men couldn't vote, and neither could one in 11 Hispanic men. Four percent of adults in Providence were ineligible.

And the ban hit urban communities incredibly hard. Nearly 80 percent of those affected lived in cities, particularly Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, Newport and Woonsocket. Drilling down farther, the neighborhood of Upper South Providence lost almost 10 percent of its potential voters, 35 times the rate of disenfranchisement in the northeast Providence neighborhood of Blackstone.

Suddenly a "curiosity" looked like a harsh political reality.

Report in hand, FLC realized it was on to something and went national with it, to the three organizations -- NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, the ACLU and the Sentencing Project -- that have for years collaborated on a national Right to Vote campaign.

The national coalition suggested to FLC that it could increase the press pickup of the report by releasing it in conjunction with a similar paper that found 14 percent of Atlanta's black men were banned from the ballot box. FLC agreed, and the tactic worked. In late September 2004, "Political Punishment" was featured not only in the Providence Journal but also the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The group has just learned its first important lesson: to link its research with other similar work to reach a larger audience -- in doing so it not only increased public education, but got political attention as well.

After that, things began to snowball. Local lawmakers, as legislators do, jumped to capitalize on the hot news story their constituents might be reading. Hearings on Rhode Island's felony voting ban were called in the General Assembly. Initial polling found Rhode Islanders generally warm to the idea of increasing felony voting rights. Progressive groups joined FLC in the effort, laying the groundwork for a statewide Restore the Vote coalition.

As momentum began to build, advocates had to grapple with the fact that the ban was baked into Article II Section I of the Rhode Island Constitution. What seemed at first a setback soon looked a lot like an advantage. Legislators would have put the question on the ballot -- a constitutional amendment would live or die with voters on Election Day.

"Legislators weren't taking a huge political risk -- they weren't ratifying anything," Schleifer says. If change had required that lawmakers directly expand rights for criminals, ending civil death may well have been dead on arrival -- instead, it was up to the voters themselves. This proved the second important lesson.

As with any campaign, there are unexpected blessing, but also hurdles. It's fair to say that, looking back, the greatest obstacle in the path of Rhode Island's growing restoration movement wasn't the protestations of "tough on crime" conservatives or "lock 'em up" law enforcement. Instead, it was convoluted campaign finance laws.

As momentum built, a handful of national and local funders lined up to contribute to the Restore the Vote coalition. State law, however, restricted the work of foundations and nonprofits on ballot measures. What's more, it required parties working together on a ballot measure to form file as a PAC. Wrangling with campaign finance regulations was too complicated for tiny FLC, and the national campaign wasn't much help in deciphering the nuances of local law.

The law wasn't a clear restriction. But it was confusing enough to create a chilling effect. Local funders who had pledge contributions were wary of doing so with the law unclear. The national campaign was reluctant to dedicate funds to Rhode Island while the future there was murky. In the fall of 2005 the Restore the Vote coalition went into a holding pattern.

To be sure, FLC hadn't expected to become campaign finance reform advocates when it opened its doors in 2002. FLC had dedicated itself to helping ex-offenders navigate reentry into society during the critical period immediately after release. In some cases, the center was the first stop after prison for some, still clutching their prison-issued belongings.

"We were a new organization struggling to keep our doors open," says Sol Rodriguez, FLC's executive director. But FLC staff soon discovered that they couldn't do only hands-on service work and still meet their clients' needs. "It became clear that we needed to do policy work," says Schleifer.

It takes a (progressive) community

In the end, the pillars of Rhode Island's progressive community -- the state branches of Common Cause and the ACLU, as well as the Rhode Island Foundation -- won the needed change in the state's campaign finance laws. Those groups had been agitating for change in the courts for years, in particular as part of an effort to fund a campaign around Question 9, a $50 million bond measure on affordable housing. This was the third important lesson -- progressive issues are intertwined, and change involves working with allies to cut across issues.

The "Restore the Vote" campaign, of which all three organizations were coalition partners, brought new impetus. But as time passed and Election Day 2006 loomed on the horizon, judicial remedy looked like it would come too late. The progressive big guns, now joined by FLC, began pursuing a legislative strategy.

They worked with Board of Elections officials to craft a new statute that would free their hands. Meanwhile, there was action in the courts -- in May, a judge struck down the provision restricting the advocacy work by foundations and nonprofits. The General Assembly, spurred by the judge's ruling, did away with the provision that required that coalition partners organize as a PAC.

With the campaign finance question settled in late summer, funding flowed in. Restore the Vote switched gears from barely sustaining a general-education coalition to ramping up what amounted to a traditional, albeit low-budget, political campaign. (In the end, the entire campaign would end up costing in the neighborhood of $300,000.)

But here again was a challenge. By the time that the campaign finance law was settled in August, Election Day was just two months away. Rhode Island's experienced political talent had been snatched up earlier in the cycle by gubernatorial campaigns or had gone to work in the high-profile Chafee vs. Whitehouse Senate race. Out of necessity, Rodriguez eventually ended up directing the campaign. And, "out of ignorance," Schleifer jokes, he became the campaign's de facto field director.

What's more, there was a new idea in the air about how much issue campaigns should pay. "Restore the Vote" was Question 2 on the November ballot; Question 1 was a gambling provision, supported by the Narragansett Indian Tribe and funded by the very deep pockets of the Harrah's gaming corporation. Ocean state organizers could bag a bigger paycheck working to pass Question 1 than they could do the same on Question 2.

"We had limited resources," says Rodriguez. And with Election Day now just over the horizon, even less time. "We really tried to figure out ways to use our resources creatively." The coalition learned how to direct its resources in the most efficient way. It made the cost-cutting decision not to spend much money at all on paid advertising. Building support for extending rights to voters required some convincing of voters, and, says Rodriguez, "It's really difficult to persuade people through purchased media."

Instead, says Rodriguez, the coalition decided to focus its efforts on Rhode Islanders already inclined to be sympathetic on the issue, who with a little education could form an active base of supporters. Many of them knew someone who couldn't vote themselves, says Rodriguez. It was an approach not without risks. The coalition was hitching its wagon to voters who hadn't always turned out on Election Day.

Schleifer began to build a corps of volunteers who could both win over voters and make sure they turned out to vote. As it turned out, some Restore the Vote volunteers were themselves disenfranchised or had loved ones who were. But much of that corps was drawn from the student bodies of Rhode Island College and Brown. Says Schleifer, "We wouldn't have won without those students" -- another important lesson.

Their field strategy assumed that votes would break even in the suburbs, and so they scaled back from a campaign that would cover the whole 1,545-square-mile state and instead focused their energies and attention on the cities of Providence, Pawtucket, Newport and Woonsocket. Frankly, it was a strategy borne of necessity -- they just didn't have the cash to pay canvassers to work the suburbs.

But the campaign's shallow pockets may have been a blessing, the concentration of the campaign was one reason opposition was scattered and dispirited while support ran high among state leaders. The arguments against felon enfranchisement were largely limited to the idea that voting bans were reasonable punitive responses to very serious crimes. (According to one such sentiment, voiced by a few state senators, "When you kill someone, you take away all their rights forever.") But that thinking never seemed to gain traction.

In a drive to get endorsements, the coalition's steering committee members worked their personal relationships -- a key strategy. "Rhode Island is a unique place, with no degree of separation," says Rodriguez, and "once we got one mayor, we got another." In an op-ed in the Providence Journal weeks before Election Day, the Providence chief of police wrote that "restoring voting rights ... would strengthen our democracy and enhance public safety." Schleifer admits that the chief "got a lot of shit from conservative talk radio and the rank-and-file," but that his support "gave some people a level of comfort."

The final countdown

Days and weeks ticked by, endorsements mounted up, pavement was pounded, doors were knocked, and urban voters were hammered with the "Vote Yes on Question 2" message. At the very end, the coalition scraped together a bit of money and more than a hundred committed volunteers, many of whom had been campaigning without pay for months now, were made paid campaign staff for the final four-day push.

Now all that was needed was a place to headquarter all those warm bodies. An apartment was rented in Pawtucket, hotel rooms booked in Newport and Woonsocket. Schleifer's house in the west side of Providence was commandeered, as was a student volunteer's house on the east side of town.

Erica Sagrans, an AmericaCorp fellow at FLC who was active on the campaign, said that in one case, rental papers for an apartment weren't signed until Friday, Nov. 3, just hours before student volunteers were due to arrive. She and Schleifer, Sagrans says, spent the night hauling chairs into the apartment and hanging signs in the hallways, letting the neighbors know that a bunch of people would be tramping in and out of their building in the next four days.

Election Day came. In the end, the cities turned out big. Question 2 won, 51 percent to 49 percent by the final count. (In the end, Harrah's and the Narragansett Indian Tribe lost on Question 1 in a 63 percent to 37 percent drubbing. The final cost of that campaign -- $14 million.) Restore the Vote proved that money matters -- not how much you have, but how well you spend it.

Looking back, from an intern's summer project to reform of the state's campaign finance laws to the guidance of national organizations to the focused strategy borne of the campaign's shoestring budget, everything seemed to fall in place when it needed to. "It was absolutely a perfect storm," said Rodriguez.

What it all means

The expansion of voting rights in Rhode Island was a big concrete victory for voting rights activists, in that state and nationwide. But felony disenfranchisement doesn't exist in a bubble. It should be understood in the larger context of American civic life. It's "part and parcel of the way that we do democracy in this country," says Ana Muñoz, field coordinator at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Digging into these issues, you strike at the fiber of American civics, where discussions over having to show a driver's license at the voting station spiral into a complex conversations on immigration and harkens back to the days of the poll tax.

But the Rhode Island victory is also an instructive win for the progressive community. FLC admits it more or less made things up as it went along, charting new ground for the organization. It succeeded because of its willingness to reach out to other forward-thinking organizations to develop alliances, its scrappy and creative use of resources, and its skill at exploiting every opportunity for public education.

Thanks also to its own efforts of strategic voter mobilization, and likely thanks to the other issue groups and Democratic campaigns that worked to move progressive voters to the polls on Nov. 7, in the end, FLC walked away with a majority of the vote and a change in law.

"Every civil rights change," says Muñoz, "seems impossible at the time." But of course, we can look at Rhode Island as one more of example of how nothing is impossible. The harder progressives work and the more we figure out how to work together, the more we can achieve the social change we want to see -- no matter how daunting the task might seem at first.