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Kevin Wong, an organizer for Restore Your Vote, speaks in front of the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas on Oct. 3, 2018 about how he discovered he could vote in spite of felony convictions. Photo by Michelle Rindels.

Kevin Wong voted in the 2008 election, but after being convicted on charges including armed robbery, theft and aggravated assault, he never thought he’d be able to go to the polls again.

I was released from prison on Nov. 6,” he said — two days before the 2016 elections. “And I found it ironic that although I’d watched every debate inside, I was now disenfranchised.”

But with help from the Restore Your Vote campaign, which helps people with criminal records navigate a complicated patchwork of state laws that limit or revoke their voting rights, Wong was able to determine he is, in fact, allowed to vote. Last week, he received his voter registration card, and he plans to cast his vote in the general election.

“Taking away my right to vote — I feel like so many people have fought for this right, people have died for this right. It would sort of be an injustice to civil liberties that people of color, especially, have acquired within the past 50 years or so,” said Wong, who is now a political science major at UNLV and an intern for the Restore Your Vote campaign. “It would be nice for me to be able to choose my elected leaders especially considering the policies that are enacted do affect me.”

Although not as severe as states including Florida, Nevada’s laws restricting ex-felons’ rights to vote are among the harsher rules in the country. As of 2016, there were nearly 90,000 people in Nevada who couldn’t vote because of a conviction — about 4 percent of the voting age population and a critical figure considering Nevada’s status as a battleground state with close races.

“Whether it’s the governor’s race, Senate race, congressional races  — every state race this year — everything will come down to just a few votes,” said Restore Your Vote organizer Aaron Esparza. “So that 4 percent … could have a huge impact.”

Florida disenfranchises people at the highest rate in the country — more than 10 percent of the voting age population is unable to cast a ballot because of a felony conviction, and regaining the right involves personally petitioning the governor. A ballot measure seeks to change that law, allowing an estimated 1.4 million people to regain their right.

The Restore Your Vote campaign is working in Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Alabama to inform people with criminal records that they may already be eligible to register, and explain the process for regaining voting rights. Backed by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, the Restore Your Vote campaign includes an interactive website to guide people on what voting rules apply to them depending on their convictions and state.

Organizers in Reno and Las Vegas have also been visiting post-incarceration re-entry centers and canvassing outside courts and the Nevada Parole Board to educate convicted felons on their rights. So far, they’ve connected with about 300 people this cycle to try to help them get on the voter rolls.

“That’s the biggest misconception and the No. 1 thing that we’re facing is just that folks believe that, ‘I have a felony, I can’t ever vote again,’” Esparza said. “But here in Nevada, once you finish your time, you can restore your voting rights. There’s different pathways.”

Nevada’s process

Nevada has a nuanced law on voter restoration rights.

Some people can regain their rights by having their criminal record sealed. Groups including the ACLU and the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada offer periodic workshops on how to do that.

Other people have their rights automatically restored. In general:

  • People who completed their sentence before July 1, 2003 have their voting rights automatically restored.
  • For people who did not complete their sentence by July 1, 2003, voting rights are automatically restored unless the person was dishonorably discharged from parole or probation, has multiple convictions that did not stem from the same event, or was convicted of a Category A or Category B felony that involved violence or the use of force.
  • Effective January 2019, people who have been dishonorably discharged from parole or probation will be eligible for automatic restoration of voter rights.

Those who don’t meet the qualifications to have their rights automatically restored could do so if they “petition a court of competent jurisdiction.” But there’s little clarity in the law about what that means — for example, is that the court where the conviction occurred or where the person lives now?

“We are actively trying to help people to determine what that process looks like,” said ACLU attorney Lauren Kaufman. “And we want to help people who may feel that that process right now is unavailable to them or that they may feel overwhelmed by that process.”

Esparza cited a study indicating there were only 283 people between 1990 and 2011 who have petitioned the court in Nevada to get their rights restored. The study did not indicate how many were successful.

Kaufman said that opaque legal petitioning process is something that the ACLU hopes to improve in the future.

“The petition process specifically needs to be something that is clearer, easier for people to use, easier for people to understand,” Kaufman said.

A debt to society

Legislation to expand voter rights for ex-felons has divided lawmakers. Only two Republicans voted in favor of a measure in 2017 to expand automatic voter rights restoration to people who were dishonorably discharged from parole.

Proponents had argued that a “technical” violation is often what makes the difference between someone being honorably or dishonorably released from parole — someone failing a drug test for marijuana, for example, rather than committing any new crime.

But critics of the bill questioned whether people leaving parole on “dishonorable” grounds had finished paying for their crime and whether allowing automatic rights restoration truly acknowledged the dishonorable nature of their discharge.

“There is an assumption that I need to dispute: that they have paid their debt to society,” Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen said in a 2017 hearing. “If you ask the private citizen in Nevada if these people have paid their debt entirely, they would say no. Part of that debt is giving up the right to vote until they show that they can be in society and reintegrate into that process.”

Hansen also said he doesn’t think the general electorate wants to expand voting rights to ex-felons.

“When I went door to door, I did not run into a single person who said he wanted us to restore voting rights to felons,” he said. “If you put this question on the ballot, it would be crushed in a heartbeat.”

But for Michael Hollis with the Foundation for an Independent Tomorrow, a group focused on job training for people leaving the criminal justice system, regaining the right to civic participation is an important psychological milestone. It helps his clients feel normal again, he said.

“They come in at their lowest points and now they are able to get a job, they are able to find out about voting, and it just builds them back up,” he said. “It’s self-identity — to just realize they’re worthy, just like you and I.”

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