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"Got a Felony? In California 'You Can Vote'"

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By Chris Levister

Inspired by a October 2008 Black Voice News story, ex-convict David Allen Valentine was scouring a sweltering Victorville strip-mall parking lot with his clipboard in hand, looking for excons who might cast the deciding vote in the November 6 presidential election.

Darius Cole, a slender, tattooed 23-year-old with a ready cell phone, a laconic smile and a criminal record, was the first person he approached.

“Bro I can’t vote, because I got two felonies,” Cole told Valentine. He had completed a nine-month sentence for possession of crack cocaine, he said. But Valentine had good news for him: “You can vote,” he told Cole.

“You commit a crime – you go to prison – you do your time and they still take away your rights," Cole said as he filled out a form to register. Cole and Valentine bumped fists, Valentine paused clinched his teeth and resumed the hunt. He approaches another man leaving a liquor store.

“Hey bro are you registered to vote,” asked Valentine.

“Don’t waste your time,” the man responded pulling away in his pickup truck.

“I can’t vote because I’m a felon.”

“That was me five years ago,” said Valentine.

He says finding felons isn't the hard part. It's educating them, getting them registered and getting them to the polls.

For Valentine it’s a personal mission.

Ever since he was released from a California state prison in 2007, he has been haunted by three words: ‘I can’t vote’.

He says the message was hammered home behind bars and reinforced by family, friends, and even his pastor.

As a result, Valentine sat on the sidelines for Barack Obama’s stunning victory in the 2008 presidential election.

“I didn’t vote largely due to my own ignorance. I bought into the myth: Once a criminal, always a criminal.”

Each year tens of thousands of felons are released from custody back to California, all sharing the same misbelief that they are ineligible to vote, says Kim Carter Founder and Executive Director of the San Bernardino-based Time for Change Foundation.

The only time you are not eligible to vote is if you have a felony conviction and you are still in state prison or on parole. If you have a felony conviction, you CAN vote if: you are on probation, or you have completed your probation, or you have completed your parole says Carter.

Certified in accounting with an emphasis on not-for-profits, Kim Carter was inspired to leave the corporate world in 2002 to start Time for Change Foundation.

Motivated by her own experiences as a formerly incarcerated woman, Kim made it her mission to help women and children make the transition from homelessness and recidivism to self-sufficiency.

Today, she is a powerful voice for women who bear the scars of poverty, homelessness, and incarceration.

“Voting helps transform a former prisoner from an outsider into a law-abiding citizen,” she says.

Indeed, studies show that those who cast a ballot are less likely to commit another crime. Still says Carter, it takes courage to stand up to those who insist that you never out live a past mistake.”

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 track down former felons in indigent neighborhoods.

Last week, the headlines were flooded with the news of alarming billboards surfacing in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods around the U.S.

Many grassroots organizations believe that the unsolicited billboards warning residents that voter fraud was a felony were strategically-placed in minority-populated counties with the intent to intimidate eligible African- American and Latino voters.

Clear Channel agreed to remove the ads, but many are concerned that with less than two weeks before the election, the irreversible damage has already been done.

The confusion isn't limited to felons. Researchers at the Brennan Center and the American Civil Liberties Union interviewed election officials in 23 states from 2003 to 2008. In a report, the groups said many officials in those states didn't understand voter eligibility rules for felons or how they can register to vote.

Among the problems: officials telling those convicted of misdemeanors they had lost the right to vote, failing to distinguish between probation and parole, and illegally demanding documentation.

The researchers also found election officials who said they wouldn't help a felon register, which concerns civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

State disenfranchisement laws have a profound impact on minorities.

Nationwide, an estimated 13 percent of African-American men have lost the right to vote because of spending time in prison, a rate that is seven times the national average. Given current rates of incarceration, three in ten of the next generation of African- American men can expect to lose the right to vote at some point in their lifetimes.

“People who have criminal histories face a lifetime of stigma and harassment. My goal is to educate and get them to the voting booth,” says Valentine.

Two weeks ago he was reminded of that stigma. While registering felons at a Victorville church someone handed him a card warning of voter fraud.

“The guy simply slipped it in my hand and walked away,” said Valentine. That act, he says while not surprising was a blatant wake-up call that voter suppression efforts aren’t limited to southern states like Virginia, Florida and Kentucky all with laws that prohibit voting because of past criminal convictions.

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