"I didn't think we could vote for five years," says a young man, standing on Orleans Avenue, waiting for the Super Sunday Mardi Gras Indian parade to pass by.
"I've never voted. I'm a felon," says a 35-year-old man who's waiting for his probation officer downtown, at the Division of Probation and Parole office. New Orleans has two such offices, currently supervising a total caseload of more than 7,000 people between them. A Jefferson Parish office oversees about 5,500 more.
The office's district manager, David Lindsey, walks out to say hello, then gets into the discussion about voting rights. "It's my understanding that, in Louisiana, if you have more than one felony, you're unable to vote," he says. He picks up the telephone and checks with an attorney at the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. "I stand corrected," he says, putting down the receiver. "And if I'm vague about it, certainly our clients are going to be even more vague."
Even the voting-registration offices are not in sync. An informal Gambit Weekly survey of metro-area voting registrars found a range of answers. Some knew the policy exactly; others said that it depended on what level of felony offense had been committed -- or that someone who had been convicted recently might still be able to vote because the computer system isn't updated promptly.
Norris Henderson hears confusion from, he estimates, 9 out of 10 people on the street. "It comes from years and years of misinformation," he says. "But it's not true."
Henderson gives an explanation -- one that's confirmed by the Louisiana Department of Elections. Before 1974 in Louisiana, people convicted of a felony couldn't vote again unless they got a pardon from the governor. But for the last 30 years, felons have lost their voting rights only while they're in prison or on probation or parole. After that, they can re-register by presenting their discharge papers at the voting registrar's office.
Last Wednesday, Henderson took yet another step in combating this confusion, as he drove to Baton Rouge to file the incorporation papers for VOTE -- Voice Of The Ex-offender. His focus is the 15,000 people released from this state's prisons each year -- 1 in 3 from Orleans and Jefferson parishes alone. The non-partisan VOTE's first focus is registration and turnout for the upcoming presidential election.
The confusion Henderson sees here is mirrored in other places, mainly because laws vary so wildly from state to state. Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote and no felons are disenfranchised (prohibited from voting). But in seven states -- Alabama, Florida, Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska and Iowa -- felons are disenfranchised for life. The Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project estimates that 4.7 million Americans, or one in 43 adults, are currently or permanently unable to vote.
"Four million actually can't vote. Probably another four think they can't vote," says Malik Aziz, who heads up the Philadelphia Ex-Offenders Task Force out of that city's mayor's office. While he was on parole, Aziz was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that prompted the return of the vote to anyone on probation or parole. Recently, his Task Force's nonpartisan efforts registered 20,000 ex-offenders before a Philadelphia city election.
Felony disenfranchisement was brought to the fore in 2000 in Florida, where the Bush-Gore race was decided by a mere 535 votes. News reports noted that 600,000 ex-felons in Florida were disqualified for life, with even more wrongly disqualified because of error-ridden voting rolls.
In Texas and four other states, a new coalition called Right to Vote is focusing efforts on what they call FIPs -- formerly incarcerated people. The Texas group alone hopes to register 10,000 FIPs before the election.
In New Orleans, Henderson is gearing up for registration, then get-out-the vote. He totals prison-release data and then begins to calculate, out loud, what the numbers might look like if VOTE energizes even a portion of ex-offenders statewide. The number is in the hundreds of thousands.
"This is a sleeping giant, believe me," he says.
It was his first assignment for ninth-grade homeroom, and Henderson can still recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution today: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice Š. " He was always an avid student -- "I cried to go to school," he says -- and he grew up Uptown playing marbles, flying kites, masking with the Wild Magnolias, and playing sousaphone in the Carter G. Woodson Junior High School marching band. But as he reached voting age, he got caught up with the wrong crowd. By age 20, he'd been arrested for murder. At 21, he was convicted and sentenced to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
There, he returned to his studies. "Angola was a place that bred activism, because the conditions were so bad," says Henderson. He started to learn that successes could come through "pushing the pencil at them" -- writing letters and filing complaints.
During the 1970s, after well-publicized riots at some of the nation's other prisons, Henderson and some others decided to examine the unrest. "We have to focus on our plight," they told other inmates, and soon a group of people were working together, doing research. "We decided we need to draw more attention to us," he says. "So we became politicians." At the time, people were predicting a hotly contested gubernatorial primary between Edwin Edwards and Buddy Roemer, and the inmates decided to get involved in that race -- even though they couldn't vote. They launched something they called the Angola Special Civics Project and recruited Ted Quant, director of the Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice at Loyola University, to be one of the people who would help them organize from the outside.
Quant drove to the prison in 1987 for the initial Civics Project presentation and recalls walking into a room with all four walls covered with charts. "They had these magnificent graphs -- how much money it costs to incarcerate, how many people in prison, how many family members, what it would mean if a certain number of those people voted, how many were illiterate. They'd done a detailed analysis, like a corporation would do." The inmates designed a two-prong project, says Quant, first giving themselves a political education and then using that knowledge to organize their families to become registered and vote.
The project prompted activity in all parts of the prison, says Henderson. Some inmates would watch the TV news and write down pertinent quotes. Others would clip articles out of the newspapers. They created voter-information packets, explained their ideas to all their visitors, talked about it on the phone, wrote letters to the Louisiana Weekly.
This sort of outreach may be especially crucial in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates, says Marc Mauer, director of the Sentencing Project. Studies have shown that fewer eligible voters turn out in those areas than other places. "It may be that some ex-felons incorrectly believe that they've lost the right to vote forever," he says. Or it may be something else -- that voting is ultimately a communal, community experience. And so, when a large number of people in one neighborhood are disenfranchised, their wives, parents, cousins and neighbors also may become less interested in voting. "This kind of ripple effect goes beyond the people who are actually disenfranchised," says Mauer.
The community aspect of voting may be the true power behind the ballot box, says political scientist Alec Ewald, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and recently wrote Punishing at the Polls, a hefty report about voter disenfranchisement laws that was released last fall by the New York-based advocacy group Demos.
In reality, one vote is rarely powerful enough to influence entire elections, explains Ewald. But to the people pulling the lever, it feels like a powerful act. He explains what he hears from young students about their first voting experiences: "When I talk to them, they don't necessarily remember who they voted for a year ago, but they can tell me all about the feeling of voting." The students tell Ewald that they felt pride, a sense of membership and civic accomplishment, a feeling that a duty had been done, a sense of belonging.
Henderson too believes in this idea. "Voting makes a guy feel a part of a community again," he says. This is especially true, he believes, in a political town like New Orleans where, when election day rolls around, "everybody is working on somebody's campaign."
Ewald's report for Demos dissects at length the two main arguments supporting disenfranchisement policies -- that taking away the vote is a punishment and that to have felons vote would ruin the purity of our political system. But Ewald thinks it may come down to something more simple. "I really think that people today who support disenfranchisement often do so because of the community dimension of voting, because of the feeling that they don't want a rapist in the voting booth with them."
On the face of it, that may seem to make sense, says Ewald. "But we don't say, 'I don't want bigoted people voting, so people who are in the Ku Klux Klan can't vote.'" Plenty of lazy or greedy or offensive people are voting today, says Ewald. "Any attempt to weed them out would be seen as anti-American."
Fifteen years ago, Henderson discovered that the vote wasn't lost to him forever. He was at Angola, with his nose in a lawbook, reading about the 1974 constitution. "I said, 'Lo and behold, we -- ex-offenders -- can vote.'" It was something he hadn't known, and he found out that almost no one else knew it either. "I said, 'That's it -- that is the key,'" he says.
Quant remembers Henderson telling him about the issue, years ago. "In Louisiana, most ex-offenders assume that they can't vote. Norris is the one who discovered that."
Henderson tried to make that point from Angola. "What's your excuse?" he wrote in a letter published in the Louisiana Weekly in the early 1990s. "I'm disenfranchised because I can't vote. You're disenfranchised because you don't." Cutting yourself out of the process hampers the whole community, he wrote.
Henderson still can't vote, even though he was released last year after doing nearly 30 years. That's because he's still on parole.
He has, however, been working on campaigns -- putting out yard signs, organizing, and talking to people in the community. During last fall's election, he gave a speech in Baton Rouge right before Buddy Leach took the podium to endorse Kathleen Blanco. Henderson talked about a widespread phone boycott he'd spearheaded at Angola more than a decade ago, in response to allegations of high rates and corruption. At the time, Blanco was on the state Public Service Commission. She had taken a keen interest, Henderson said, and as a result of her work, the Public Service Commission put restrictions on the company and ran it out of the state. "Unbeknownst to her, she became near and dear to us," he says. "She had helped a bunch of helpless people and I thought if I was ever in a position to help her, I would."
In November, Henderson hopes to, at age 51, vote for the first time in his life. Like many other ex-offenders, he says, he wants to feel that sense of responsibility that comes from voting in your community. He wants to voice his opinion like everyone else -- through the ballot box.
"Jim Brown is a case in point," he says. "He gets out of prison and what's the first thing he wants to do? Vote."
"I've always taken voting seriously," says Jim Brown. During the 1980s, when he served two terms as Louisiana's secretary of state, Brown needed to be in Baton Rouge on Election Day to oversee state elections. But he made extraordinary efforts to vote where he lived, in Ferriday.
"I would often charter a plane at my own expense and fly back to Ferriday to vote," he says. "One year, I got up at 4 in the morning and drove to Ferriday, voted at Ward 1 outside of town and then drove back and was in my office at 8:30 so that I could do my job as chief elections officer."
As secretary of state, Brown didn't have much occasion to think about voting rights for ex-felons. "It didn't hit home to me then," he says. But last year, Brown -- who also served in both houses of the Louisiana legislature and three terms as Louisiana's insurance commissioner -- spent six months at the federal prison in Oakdale on seven counts of lying to an FBI agent. Because he's on supervised parole until 2005, he can't currently vote -- unless he gets a pardon signed by the governor. Earlier this month, he appeared before the Pardon Board to ask for just that.
"I treasure my right to vote," he says. "If you take that away, I become muzzled; I become a second-class citizen. I pay taxes, but I have no say-so in how those taxes are spent." If he had it to do over again, he would advocate restoring voting rights for those on probation or parole, he says. "Unless it happens to you, you don't care," he says.
Brown's disenfranchisement carries an irony not only because he was secretary of state, but also because he was a delegate to the 1972-73 constitutional convention, which gave broader voting rights to felons.
As a result of that convention, Louisiana's laws became more progressive than many other Southern states. To understand why that happened, Brown suggests phoning a fellow constitutional delegate, legendary attorney Camille Gravel, who's now in his late 80s. "There was a real desire on the part of the delegates," Gravel recalls, "to permit the convicted felon the right to vote once he had satisfied the sanctions imposed upon him by the court. We thought it was the fair thing to do."
Gravel looks through his Rolodex for the phone number for attorney Chris Roy, Sr., head of the committee that discussed that particular issue in detail. It was about fairness and second chances, Roy agrees, but, in the floor debate, he had also raised another issue -- only the poor were being penalized by the then-existing law. "Only the wealthy could afford to get back in and vote, because they had enough money to hire a lawyer and then get the governor to sign the pardon."
There were other concerns about lifetime disenfranchisement laws, says Gravel. "A lot of those statutes, especially in the South, have civil rights implications -- it's a study in itself, I'm sure."
In 1998, the Sentencing Project released that very study -- the first large report that calculated disenfranchisement numbers, by impact and race, for each state. The Project continues to keep those tallies current, and the results are still as startling as they were when the study first made headlines. In six states, one in four black men were permanently disenfranchised. Nationwide, 1.4 million black men -- 13 percent of the population -- has lost voting rights.
Currently, Louisiana's state prison system disenfranchises 96,421 people -- 3 out of every 100 adult residents. Inmates in federal prisons and local jails would increase that number. Because more than 9 out of 10 state prisoners are male and 3 out of 4 are black, there's no doubt that black men make up most of the disenfranchised voters in this state.
In the end, it's futile to look at voter disenfranchisement without discussing its race effects, says Ewald. That's because disenfranchisement is at the intersection of two institutions with shameful racial histories -- the criminal justice system and electoral politics. "Both, for most of our history, had explicitly, purposely, racially discriminatory policies," Ewald says.
In a way, that makes the vote even more important for anyone who's black, says Goodwille Pierre, from the Houston-based People for the American Way, partner in the Texas Right to Vote project. "African Americans were killed because they thought the literacy test was unfair. And for you not to vote is a slap in their faces."
But voting is not just about the past -- it's about hope for the future, says Pierre. "I disdain criminal behavior, but I believe in rehabilitation," he says. "And you cannot rehabilitate someone who doesn't feel like they're part of the system." Most people coming out of prison are facing lots of disappointments -- their record causes landlords to turn them down for apartments, employers to reject them for positions. "When you're an FIP, success keeps you going, failure makes you go back in," Pierre says.
At Angola, Henderson was the winningest football coach in the history of corrections. When he left, the guys from his team said, "Coach -- you got to get a Little League team when you get home."
When he returned to New Orleans, he found that many of the local coaching positions barred felons. He hasn't given up hope, he says. "I still have my playbook." But he's also including youth in his other love -- civics.
"As I was canvassing over the weekend," he says, "we ran into two girls from St. Mary's Academy. I told them, 'I know you're too young, but encourage your parents to vote.'"
Then he stopped to talk to two young men. "I can't vote, man, because I've been to prison," said the first one. "No, you're still in the loop," Henderson said, going on to explain the voting law he discovered in a lawbook when these guys were still in elementary school.