Rhode Island Considers Voting Rights for Felons

Pamela Graham lives on a busy street, in a cramped three-room apartment with little furniture and peeling paint. She got out of jail less than a year ago after serving 27 months for dealing cocaine.

Although she looks grandmotherly with graying hair, she's on parole and in Rhode Island, that means she can't go to the polls this November.

"Even in my parole letter, my mother wrote, 'Pamela has always been an avid voter.' And now - and that's one of the things that really hurts, and I feel that I've lost my right as a real citizen," she said.

Rhode Island laws currently prevent felons on parole and probation from voting, but there is an initiative on the ballot this fall that would allow ex-cons to vote.

Advocacy groups estimate that the 15,000 Rhode Island residents cannot vote due to parole or probation. Those numbers seem more dramatic if you break it down by racial and ethnic groups, or by neighborhoods. Twelve percent of Rhode Island's African-American population isn't able to vote, nor are 11 percent of South Providence residents. In some neighborhoods, large numbers of people can't cast ballots for city council or school board representation.

Both the Republican governor and the Rhode Island Police Chiefs' Association have denounced this ballot question. Col. Stephen Pare of the Rhode Island State Police called voting a privilege.

"When you commit a crime and you're convicted of a felony, that is one thing that you give up — just like the right to carry a firearm, the right to serve on a jury. Those are all things that you sacrifice when you commit a crime in this community," he said.

On a chilly fall evening, a recent Brown University graduate named Sarah Bowman, trudged through dead leaves and knocked on dark front porches to try to drum up support for the measure.

Several people had never heard of the ballot question — although Bowman was campaigning in Pawtucket, a city with a high population of felons. She did not have much success until she ran into a 37-year-old house painter named Michael Lavesque.

"My ex-brother–in-law is incarcerated right now," he said. "Even for that, I mean, when he comes out, he should be able to vote. What kind-of society are we living at if everybody in the world can't vote just because they got incarcerated?"

Just a few streets away, another voter felt differently. Forty-eight-year-old truck driver Michael Webb was lighting a bonfire in his backyard. Although he had not heard of the ballot question beforehand, he did not like it.

"Most of these people are going to be let out and are going to be very liberal. And they are going to vote more towards liberal side, which I'm totally against," he said.

Rhode Island is the only state to let voters decide this question. In 16 other states, legislators have changed their voting laws to give convicted felons more voting rights.

Nancy Cook reports from member station WRNI.

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