Nationally, laws denying people with felony convictions the right to vote are keeping an estimated 5.85 million people from the polls though they have already paid their debts to society, according to the policy reform organization the Sentencing Project.Here in North Carolina, the laws are friendlier to ex-offenders. Those with misdemeanor convictions may vote even while incarcerated, and those with felony convictions only lose their rights temporarily, said Linda Sutton, chair of the Forsyth County Board of Elections and a field organizer for Democracy NC, a nonpartisan voting rights organization.
“If you committed a felony, you lose your voting rights until you finish your sentence, and that includes probation and parole,” Sutton stated. “Misdemeanors don’t affect your right to vote. We have people at the (Forsyth County) Dentention Center registering people to vote now and showing them how to fill out their absentee ballot.”
Rob Coffman, the director of the Forsyth County Board of Elections, said the process to restore the right to vote for someone with a felony conviction is relatively simple.
“There is no application process for restoration of rights for voting,” he stated. “… But, just like any other individual, they would need to complete a voter registration form.”
Sutton said the rigid laws in other states have led some local ex-offenders to believe that they too are barred for life from voting.
Milton Norfleet, 48, says he has a new fervor for participating in the electoral process since being released from prison two years ago. Norfleet, who is engaged to be married in October, credits Harold Smith, president of the Eureka House transitional home, with getting him politically involved.
“I think it’s very important,” said Norfleet, a New Bern native who currently lives in Eureka House. “…I really didn’t know how important it (voting) was until Mr. Smith talked to me about it. I’m really serious about getting other people out here to do it too.”
Norfleet, an NC Department of Transportation employee, said landing a state job has increased his awareness of the impact voting can have. The right people in White House and the Governor’s Mansion, in his opinion, will be the ones who can lower gas prices.
“When gas prices go up, people don’t drive like they used to, and when they don’t use the roads, it slows our production,” he related. “That’s what we talk about in our meetings, staff getting out and voting. We just want to make sure we pick the right candidate.”
Norfleet said he often talks to friends and fellow ex-offenders about getting involved in the electoral process. He believes it is a right that all Americans – not just ex-offenders – should take more seriously.
“The people need to get out and vote – I think that’s important,” he concluded. “Everybody needs to realize the connection (of elected officials) to their jobs.”
Bobby Wilson is an ex-offender-turned voting rights advocate. For years, he has educated other ex-offenders about their voting rights.
“I want them to register first and I want them to vote,” said the NC State alumnus. “…it’s a vote that makes a difference.”
Wilson said the myth that those with criminal records can’t vote is wide-spread and needs to be dispelled.
“A lot of times they are surprised because they haven’t heard of it or they’re told they couldn’t (vote),” Wilson said of the response he gets from ex-offenders. “I march them down to the Board of Elections and register them to vote myself.”
“Felony disenfranchisement” is the term the Sentencing Project uses to label the practice of states that do not restore voting rights to ex-offenders. It is a major issue for voting rights advocates across the country, but this election year, Sutton said many voter rights groups have been tied up fighting voter identification laws that have sprung up in several states. The GOP-led N.C. General Assembly passed such a measure, but it was vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue.
Sutton says the entire electorate needs to be energized around exercising their rights to voice their opinions as free citizens.
“We’ve got to do a better job of educating people and trying to inspire people and get them to exercise their right to vote,” she said.
She is urging all citizens to vote, even if they encounter an unexpected obstacle at the polls, such as a worker requiring identification, which is currently prohibited by NC law.
“We try to tell people if they run into a problem, you still vote, you vote a provisional ballot and then you try to handle it later,” Sutton said. “You never, ever have to leave a voting place without voting, and nobody can tell you that you can’t have a provisional ballot.”
For more information or to register to vote, visit the Board of Elections office, located in the Forsyth County Government Center, 201 N. Chestnut Street, call (336) 703-2800 or visit HYPERLINK “http://www.forysth.cc/elections” www.forysth.cc/elections.