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.