Striding across a sweltering strip-mall parking lot with her clipboard in hand, Monica Bell, a community field organizer in Orlando, Fla., was looking for former convicts to add to the state's voter rolls.
Antonious Benton, a gold-toothed 22-year-old with a silver skull-shaped belt buckle, a laconic smile and a criminal record, was the first person she approached.
"I can't vote because I got three felonies," Mr. Benton told Ms. Bell. He had finished a six-month sentence for possession of $600 worth of crack cocaine, he said. But Ms. Bell had good news for him: The Florida Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, changed the rules last year to restore the voting rights of about 112,000 former convicts.
"After you go to prison -- you do your time and they still take all your rights away," Mr. Benton said as he filled out a form to register. "You can't get a job. You can't vote. You can't do nothing even 10 or 20 years later. You don't feel like a citizen. You don't even feel human."
Felony disenfranchisement -- often a holdover from exclusionary Jim Crow-era laws like poll taxes and ballot box literacy tests -- affects about 5.3 million former and current felons in the United States, according to voting rights groups. But voter registration and advocacy groups say that recent overhauls of these Reconstruction-era laws have loosened enough in some states to make it worth the time to lobby statehouses for more liberal voting restoration processes, and to try to track down former felons in indigent neighborhoods.
"You're talking about incredible numbers of people out there who now may have had their right to vote restored and don't even know it," said Reggie Mitchell, a former voter-registration worker for People for the American Way. In Florida, "we're talking tens of thousands of people," he said. "And in the 2000 election, in the state of Florida, 300 people made the difference."
A loose-knit group of national organizations working to restore voting rights includes the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn (Ms. Bell's employer); the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and the Brennan Center for Justice.
Two other groups, the Sentencing Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, said they had given briefings to officials for Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign about how to register former felons. But the Obama campaign has been reluctant to acknowledge any concerted effort.
An Obama spokesman, Bill Burton, said via e-mail, "We are trying to register voters across the country and follow the state laws wherever we are."
Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor and senior adviser to the Obama campaign on criminal justice issues, said he had briefed campaign officials about felony disenfranchisement issues and the various and often-confusing state requirements to restore voting rights to former convicts.
Campaign volunteers get briefed on specific state laws governing voting rights restoration in case they come across former felons during general voter registration drives, Mr. Ogletree said, "but it's not as if the Obama campaign said, 'Here's a plan for felony disenfranchisement.'"
None of the felony voter registration organizations contacted for this article could recall hearing from Senator John McCain's campaign. And a campaign spokesman said there had been no effort to reach out to former prisoners specifically.
Last month, Obama campaign workers took down a sign at their headquarters in Pottstown, Pa., that said "Felons can vote," because it might have sent the wrong message.
"The fear is that it might cost them more votes to be portrayed as the candidate of the felons than it could gain them," said Anthony C. Thompson, a New York University law professor and Obama campaign adviser. "This is a mistaken belief, in my view, when there are tens of millions of citizens with criminal records."
In fact, felony voter restoration efforts have received bipartisan support in many states including Alabama, Florida, Indiana and Maryland. Still, surveys have shown that about 70 percent of former convicts lean Democratic, according to Christopher Uggen, a University of Minnesota criminologist who said that had led some to believe that Democrats benefited from felony voter restoration more than did Republicans.
"That's because of the high rate of incarceration among African-Americans, who have strong Democratic preferences," Mr. Uggen said, "and because many people who have committed felonies are working class, relatively young, unmarried and in particular individuals with less than a high school education. These are all demographics that traditionally align themselves with the Democrats."
Muslima Lewis, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, said: "Really, you're not having a full participatory democracy if you disenfranchise so many people. It weakens the whole system and, in particular, communities of color."
All of Us or None, a prisoner-advocacy organization in San Francisco, held a rally last month about restoration of voting rights in California. Also last month, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition successfully lobbied the Denver County jail system to begin registering felons upon their release.
The ACLU is also advising lawyers' groups planning to deploy to polling places in November to enforce the rights of former convicts who have restored their voting privileges.
According to the ACLU only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners, parolees and probationers to vote. Thirteen states allow parolees and probationers to vote, eight states reinstate probationer voting rights, and 20 states restore voting rights to people who have completed their sentences, although each state has different processes, exceptions and limits on eligibility requirements. Kentucky and Virginia permanently disenfranchise nearly all felons.
Florida's felony voter registration law divides applicants into three categories based on the seriousness of their crimes: nonviolent criminals, the biggest group, need not apply for restoration of voting rights and just need to re-register. Violent criminals, but not murderers or rapists, must apply to the clemency board. The board either grants those rights immediately or investigates on a case-by-case basis. The most violent criminals are subjected to a more rigorous investigation and must attend a hearing of the clemency board, which meets only four times a year, before their rights can be reinstated.
Despite the state's liberalization of felony voter procedures, only 9,000 out of a potential 112,000 former convicts in Florida registered to vote in the last year, according to a report last month in The Orlando Sentinel. Part of the reason is that thousands of notifications sent by the state went to the wrong addresses because of poor data and former prisoners' high mobility.
Fred Schuknecht, the director of administration for the Florida Clemency Board, acknowledged in an interview that there was a backlog of 60,000 former felons who could potentially have their rights restored, but must first be reviewed by the agency. Despite the fact that 3,500 newly released prisoners are added to the caseload every month, the Legislature cut 20 percent of the staff devoted to felony voter restoration cases, Mr. Schuknecht said.
Further, Ms. Bell said that many former convicts shun attention, even if that means abdicating their voting rights.
"You might want them to fill out the registration form, but they have an outstanding warrant," she said. "And in order to help them, I need to ask what their crimes are, but they might not want to say."
Cheria Murray, 24, of Orlando, regained voting rights this year, after serving a two-day jail sentence with two years' probation for grand theft in 2003. Ms. Murray lives in a housing project where, she said, many people had been stripped of their rights because of their records.
Her companion, Duane Miller, 28, recently returned from serving a sentence for illegal firearm possession, and has not applied to reinstate his voting rights.
Ms. Murray said she thought about restoring her voting rights only recently, inspired by the presidential campaign.
"When I saw Barack Obama, that's when I got excited to get my rights back," she said. "I wanted to vote for history."
Also visit our "Prisoner ReEntry" section.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.