While more than a million Arkansans are expected to cast ballots in the 2020 election, there are some who are legally prohibited from taking part.
More than 87,000 Arkansans with felony convictions are barred from registering to vote, according to a recent report from The Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. Amendment 51 to the state constitution says felons may not register until they complete incarceration, parole and probation, as well as pay off any fines, fees or restitution as a result of their conviction.
Most of those disenfranchised people are not currently incarcerated. Only about 17,000 are in prison and about 1,000 are in local jails, according to the report. Some 27,000 are on parole and another 42,000 are on probation.
They are also disproportionately Black. Of the people in Arkansas disenfranchised by a felony conviction, about 29,000 are Black, or 33% of the estimated total. Only about 16% of the state’s population is Black, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates. (The Sentencing Project estimates that about 3,000 Latino Arkansans are disenfranchised by a felony conviction.)
According to Dr. Chris Uggen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and one of the authors of the report, the 87,000 figure is probably an undercount. It does not include people who have completed their sentence but still owe fines, fees or restitution, he said.
“For a state like Arkansas, that means our numbers are likely more conservative, because this population is missing,” Uggen said in an interview. “States vary tremendously both in terms of how they treat these monetary sanctions and in terms of how they are enforced.”
Court fines, fees and restitution can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars and can present a significant burden for people who often struggle to find a job that pays a living wage.
Rachel Alwis-Lindstrom works with former felons as the lead reentry case manager at Our House, a shelter for homeless and near-homeless families in Little Rock. She said it can be difficult for her clients to pay off their legal debts on a limited income.
“You just have a lot of demands on your money,” Alwis-Lindstrom said. “You may have to pay your rent. You may have to pay your bills. Do I pay my electricity this month or do I pay these fines?”
Cynthia Huff, 63, is an Our House client who recently regained the ability to vote. Huff was released from prison in 2002 owing fines and fees of around $2,000. She paid off her fines and fees by the time she finished her parole the following year.
It can be difficult for a former felon to find a job to pay off debts, Huff said, due to the stigma associated with incarceration.
“They still expect you to be the person that you were,” she said. “And they don’t want to give you a chance to be the new person that you are trying to be.”
The law that requires felons to pay off their debts before registering to vote “acts as a poll tax,” according to Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project. During the Jim Crow era, poll taxes required voters to pay a fee before casting a ballot and were designed to prevent Black Americans from participating in elections.
Arkansas is not the only state with such a requirement. A report published in July by the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, a criminal justice advocacy group, found that 10 states deny re-enfranchisement indefinitely due to unpaid debts related to some or all felony convictions.
Arkansas’s requirement closely resembles a controversial new law in Florida. In 2018, voters in Florida overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that reinstated voting rights for former felons after the completion of their sentences — including prison, parole and probation — except for those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. The amendment was predicted to re-enfranchise an estimated 1.4 million people. However, in 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law passed by the state legislature that required former felons to pay “all fines and fees” associated with their sentence before regaining the right to vote.
With Florida a battleground in the presidential election, the new requirement has come under intense scrutiny. In May, a federal judge ruled the requirement unconstitutional, noting its resemblance to a poll tax and its discriminatory effect on people too poor to pay their debts. But in September, a federal appeals court overturned that ruling and reinstated the requirement.
The Sentencing Project estimates that some 900,000 people in Florida may now be prevented from voting solely because they owe fines, fees or restitution. Uggen noted that the number is only a rough estimate because Florida does not track these debts in a centralized statewide system.
Arkansas similarly lacks a statewide tracking system. The state Department of Corrections, the secretary of state’s office and the Administrative Office of the Courts could not provide estimates to the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network when asked for the number of people who cannot register to vote because of outstanding debts related to a felony conviction. Circuit clerks’ offices in Pulaski and Washington counties said they could not immediately determine how many such individuals owe fines or fees to their courts.
Most states do not allow felons to vote while they are incarcerated. (Vermont and Maine are the exceptions, and Washington, D.C. passed legislation this year to join them.) But laws vary dramatically from state to state in terms of the point at which voting rights are restored.
Sixteen states automatically re-enfranchise felons after they are released from prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arkansas is one of the many states that deny voting rights to people serving felony parole or probation. Some states do not ever allow people convicted of certain crimes to regain the right to vote.
More than 5.5 million people nationwide are not allowed to vote due to a felony conviction, Porter said, up from around 1.1 million in the 1970s. The number has grown along with the prison population itself, which has swelled dramatically in the past few decades.
“The U.S. wants to consider itself a model of democracy and that is in question, given that millions of residents are disenfranchised from voting and can’t participate in who governs them,” Porter said.
Huff, who was born in Newport and raised in Hot Springs, first went to prison in 1993 on a federal gun charge. She spent three and a half years in federal prisons from Connecticut to California to Florida. A later drug charge landed her in state prison in Newport for another year.
Since her release, Huff has worked at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Goodwill Industries in Maumelle and the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Little Rock, where she worked banquets and tended bar until she was laid off earlier this year.
She’s struggled with finances at times. About eight years ago, she almost found herself homeless but found assistance through Our House, which helped her secure a federal housing voucher. Today, she lives in Hot Springs and is unemployed, but she hopes to find a job at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
Huff’s son, who is 39, is serving 13 years in federal prison in Forrest City, but Huff said she is working to break her family out of the cycle of incarceration. Her 18-year-old granddaughter graduated from Little Rock’s Parkview High School last year with a 4.3 GPA and is now a freshman at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.
“People change,” Huff said. “You grow either one way or, like an onion, you peel off certain things like dead skin. All of us that have been locked up are not trying to repeat that cycle. I’m not.”
Though Huff completed her sentence and then paid off her fines and fees in 2003, she didn’t know she could register to vote until she spoke to a caseworker at Our House several years ago. “I thought that once a felon, that you were blackballed,” Huff said. “I thought the gun thing knocked me right out of the box, but it didn’t.”
Huff said she’d learned the importance of voting as a child, when her parents made her watch the evening news to learn about current events and government. She was a voter before her incarceration, she said, and felt it was important to register again because she wants to have a say in the country’s leadership.
“Like [Congressman] French Hill or [Senator] Tom Cotton, they have never even had to deal with finding a job or dealing with a kid that is locked up,” she said. “It’s hard to feel like you have the right representation in the public office … that are looking out for the people that aren’t fortunate enough to be born with cash and have money.”
“My vote counts, because I’ve got to feel like I’m making an effort to try to make things better for the next generation … everybody that is in a low-income situation, an unemployed situation,” she said.
Huff cast her ballot early in Hot Springs this year and wants other former felons to know there are resources available to help them register to vote.
“Get off the paper and pay your fine,” Huff said, using the parlance associated with serving a sentence.
Holly Dickson, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said many former felons aren’t aware of their voting rights. But they’re not the only ones. Dickson said she’s met county clerks who didn’t know former felons were allowed to register to vote until she informed them of the law.
“Still today, we encounter many voters who don’t realize you can re-register after a conviction in the state of Arkansas,” Dickson said.
“Having assisted people in re-registering, I can tell you it’s incredibly meaningful to them,” Dickson said. “It’s an indication that you are returning and you are able to participate, because you have served your time and you have paid your dues.”
In Jonesboro, Kaleem Nazeem, 46, voted for the first time this year after spending 28 years in prison.
Convicted in 1989 for a murder he committed in North Little Rock as a juvenile, Nazeem was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In 2012, however, Nazeem’s sentence was affected by a U.S. Supreme Court case that required states to review the sentences of certain juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Nazeem’s sentence was reduced, and he was released in 2018. Twenty-eight years after he went to prison as a juvenile, he was now a free man. Nazeem owed no fines, fees or restitution upon completion of his sentence and wasted no time registering to vote.
“The only thing I had to do was go and get the proper ID,” he said.
After his release, Nazeem moved to Jonesboro where his wife lived. He works as a machine operator for a trailer manufacturer and is attending school. He now serves on the board of the Arkansas advocacy group DecARcerate and educates people about criminal justice matters as well as voting. Many of the former felons he speaks to do not know they can re-register, he said.
“They have bought into the myth that if you are a felon, you can’t vote,” Nazeem said. “I think it’s important that we dispel that myth.”
Nazeem said voting is part of the new person he wants to be.
“I just felt it was important to live my life differently than I did before,” he said.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.