Voting with conviction

Recently, when Reno News & Review photographer David Robert was asking the question for the person-on-the-street feature—"Did you vote in the primary?"—a couple of respondents said they could not vote because of felony convictions.

“No, I’m a felon and they took my voting rights away forever,” said one ("Streettalk,” Aug. 24).

In fact, felons can vote in Nevada and have been able to do so since 2003.

Nevada’s ex-felon voting laws changed significantly at that year’s Nevada Legislature, giving ex-convicts an easy way to cast their ballots. The new laws, however, have some provisions that can lead to disputes at the registrar’s office.

“Prior to 2003, Nevada had some of the most stringent rules,” said Joe Edson, field organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “It involved a lengthy, expensive petition to the courts.”

The new laws allow ex-felons who were discharged before July 2003—no matter how many convictions or what type of felony—to automatically regain their voting rights. Once the registrar receives a document, they can vote immediately. Other rights are also restored over time, such as running for office after four years or serving as a juror in a criminal trial after six years. After July 2003, only those with one felony are allowed to vote.

The wording on the voter registration form was also changed. Before the new law, it asked if a person had ever been convicted of a felony. The new form asks if a person is currently serving time for a felony.

“In the 2004 registration drive there was a lot of confusion,” Edson said. “The state didn’t get their act together and spread the word in a reliable fashion.”

However, community groups did try to get the word out, including the use of billboards to inform former felons of their restored rights.

Even since 2004, there have been problems when ex-felons try to register to vote.

“I get a call every few weeks about someone who is having trouble registering,” Edson said.

PLAN, which worked to pass the legislation restoring voting rights, offers help to former felons who are having problems registering to vote or getting proper paperwork.

Felony disenfranchisements have, because of racist federal drug penalties enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, cost the Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes across the nation. Under that law, penalties are lighter for powder cocaine (used mostly by whites) than for crack cocaine (used mostly by blacks), even though the two are biomedically identical. In practice, the cocaine cases of whites are more likely to be diverted into drug rehabilitation and not result in a conviction. The numbers have grown so great that they affect elections.

In Florida in the Gore/Bush presidential race in 2000, a startling 31 percent of the black population could not vote because of felony disenfranchisements.

In Nevada that same year, 10,500 African-Americans could not vote, according to University of Minnesota disenfranchisements scholar Christopher Uggen. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid had won his 1998 senate reelection by just 428 votes.