Advocates and opponents
Supporters of changing the laws say that voting is a building block that can help people lead full, successful lives once they leave prison.
“You have to get people engaged in the community. This is the most fundamental way you can do that,” said Lopez.
For young people in particular, losing their right to vote as an adolescent could mean they’ll never pick it up because they’re not civically engaged at a young age, he said.
But rights restoration should not be too easy, said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that studies race and ethnicity.
“If you’re not willing to follow the law, then you can’t claim that you have the right to make the law for anyone else,” he said.
People with felony records should have to demonstrate they have changed before they are allowed to vote again — and that process shouldn’t start until they’ve served their entire term, including parole or probation, Clegg said.
While there are many groups working to loosen felony voter restrictions, there are no prominent organizations strictly opposed to any changes for every felon.
Instead, when the issue does reach lawmakers, the debate typically isn’t whether to ever permit someone with a felony record to vote, but when and how to allow it.
Last year, when the Maryland General Assembly initially approved legislation easing the rights restoration process, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed the bill, saying those on probation or parole were still serving their debt to society.
“The current law achieves the proper balance between the repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights,” he said. The Maryland Senate voted to override the veto earlier this month, after the Maryland House of Delegates did so in January.
Clegg said he thinks that the organizations motivated to make voting easier for former felons are motivated by a sense of fairness, as well as a desire for more Democratic voters. The theory goes that the racial minority voters who make up a disproportionately large share of the disenfranchised are likely to vote for Democrats.
Lopez said it does not make sense to look at the issue as one likely to benefit only Democrats or Republicans. Each voter is an individual and should be treated as such, he said.
“I think there are some people who may view this through a partisan lens but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at this,” he said.
Bridging the gap
In Virginia, an estimated 400,000 people cannot vote because of their criminal history.
Virginia long has had one of the more stringent rights restoration policies in the country, but a series of executive actions by Govs. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, and Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, have made the process easier by simplifying forms, shortening waiting periods and lifting other barriers, such as a requirement that all court fees be paid before restoration.
Walker is trying to make the most of the changes. He’s already helped several thousand people fill out forms for rights restoration — which includes the right to vote, serve on a jury or as a notary public and run for public office — and wants to reach 100,000 through his nonprofit, Bridging the Gap. He runs the organization, with small donations and money from his own pocket, on top of his day job as a mental health counselor.
Walker said his first vote after having his rights restored, for President Obama in the 2012 election, was the most important he’s cast post-conviction. For all his adult life, Walker had been a regular voter, and he felt something precious had been taken from him when he lost his civil rights. When he could vote again, he felt complete.
“That made a big difference to me to be able to go back and have a voice,” he said.
But not enough people know they have the option to get their rights restored, Walker said.
In Virginia, the process for those with nonviolent offenses has been streamlined so that there is no waiting period for rights restoration after the end of supervision. Unlike some states though, an applicant does need to submit a paper form or go online to request restoration.
Those with records of more serious offenses must wait three years after the end of supervision and submit an application that includes a letter from their probation or parole supervisor. The Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth conducts a criminal background check, and the application is then approved or denied by the governor.
Walker said he’s pleased with the changes that have been made so far in Virginia. He wants the state to go even further, putting in place automatic restoration or eliminating the loss of voting rights entirely.
In Virginia, extending automatic rights restoration will require an amendment to the state Constitution, a push advocates say they won’t take on until 2017.
An effort to amend the constitution likely will encounter more opposition than the governors’ changes.
For example, Virginia Del. Mark L. Cole, a Republican who chairs the Privileges and Elections Committee, said in an email he supports rights restoration and has helped guide several constituents through the process. He thinks Virginia's system works as is.
"I believe the current process, which requires a review is probably the best approach," he wrote. "I do not support an automatic restoration with no review."
Bridging the Gap also helps people navigate jobs, housing and health care when they re-enter the community after prison. Walker knows that for many people leaving the criminal justice system voting does not rank high — if at all — on their list of priorities, especially those who never voted before. He hopes he can help make civic responsibility an important part of their lives.
Clarence Woodson Bey, 64, who left prison in 2000 (he wouldn’t say what his offense was ), was denied his bid for rights restoration twice before Bridging the Gap helped him navigate the process several years ago. When he finally received the paperwork restoring his rights, it was a moment that “lit him up like a Christmas tree.”
“I feel like I have learned and I wanted to have that opportunity to vote before I leave this Earth,” he said.
He’s since gone to the polls twice, with Walker by his side to help navigate the process. More than the candidates he voted for, or the issues that most engaged him, Bey remembers most clearly how excited he was to feel wholly a citizen, an emotion he intends to recapture with every election.
“My voice counts, that’s for sure,” he said.
Walker and other reformers want people who are returning from prison to see how policy affects their lives. It’s one thing to hope a legislator pushes a policy that helps with re-entry. It’s another to decide who that legislator will be.
People may think first of the ability to cast a ballot in a presidential election, but local and state politics matter, too, said Hailes of the Advancement Project.
“People with felony convictions want what other people want — to vote,” he said. “They want to stand up and vote for better streets and trash pick-up, and the president of the school board.”