When Thomas Johnson moved from New York City in 1996 to start a prison aftercare ministry in Gainesville, Fla., he received critical support from several local elected officials. So, when election time rolled around, Mr. Johnson wanted to express his thanks in one of the best ways he knew by voting for those who had helped him.
"But when I went to register to vote, I was told I couldn't vote in Florida," he says.
He asked why. The voter registration official pointed to a check mark he had made on his application indicating he is an ex-felon.
"But I served my time and all my rights were restored to me in New York State," explained Johnson, a former crack addict who is now an ordained minister.
It didn't matter. Under Florida law, convicted felons are barred for life from voting.
Johnson wasn't alone in his plight. Nationwide, some 1.4 million ex-felons in 13 states are prohibited from voting. But the tide may be turning against such laws.
In recent years, voting law changes in five states have granted more than 440,000 ex-felons the right to vote, according to research at the University of Minnesota. A Harris poll in July found that 80 percent of Americans believe ex-felons who have served their terms should have the right to vote. And Congressman John Conyers (D) of Michigan is introducing a bill to authorize the restoration of voting rights in national elections for all ex-felons, probationers, and parolees.
These are among developments being discussed today and tomorrow at a national symposium on felony disenfranchisement in Washington. Some 230 community activists and criminal-justice specialists from 25 states are meeting to examine the issue.
The last time such a meeting took place, in 1999, 60 attended.
"It has just mushroomed," says Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, a liberal criminal justice policy group.
The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch made national headlines in 1998 with a report that disclosed that nearly 13 percent of all African-American men were excluded from the political process because of felony convictions.
In Florida, the largest state that bars ex-felons from voting, roughly a quarter of the state's African-American men are banned from the polls.
Some analysts say that such a significant disproportionate impact on African-American political participation in Florida is proof that the disenfranchisement law is a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution.
Others disagree. In July, a federal judge in Miami dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by Johnson and seven other ex-felons seeking to overturn the state provision.
"It is not racial discrimination that deprives felons, black or white, of their right to vote, but their own decision to commit an act for which they assume the risks of detection and punishment," wrote Senior US District Judge James Lawrence King in his dismissal order.
Nancy Northup, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law who has worked on the suit, said Judge King's decision will be appealed.
"This isn't just affecting the ex-felons. It is affecting the ability of a lot of communities to elect candidates who they feel would best represent them," Ms. Northup says.
To some analysts this is not necessarily a bad thing.
"Do you really want a bloc of felons deciding elections?" asks Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative public-policy group in Northern Virginia.
The potential inclusion of a large number of new voters is a sensitive issue in Florida, where the 2000 presidential election was decided by a razor-thin 537 votes.
Mr. Clegg says that banning felons from the polls serves important societal interests by reinforcing the idea that criminals will face serious and, in some cases, permanent, consequences for lawless conduct.
"Before you can assert a right to make a law you should be willing to follow the law," he says.
Critics counter that felony disenfranchisement policies undercut the idea of rehabilitation and create a barrier to ex-felons becoming fully engaged Americans. "What this is saying is that you will always be a second-class citizen, you will never be a full member of society," says Mr. Mauer.
Johnson, the Gainesville pastor, agrees. "The men I work with are Christian ex-felons. They pledge themselves to righteousness, lawfulness, and truth," he says. "They served their time; now let them be reconciled back into the system."
Clegg says the goal of rehabilitation is better served through the restoration of voting rights on a case-by-case basis to those who deserve it rather than through a wholesale policy change that will grant rights to some who may abuse them.
Florida law permits ex-felons to petition the state government for reinstatement of voting rights. Critics say it is too complicated and takes too long.
"There is obviously a delicate balance here," Clegg says. "Society wants to send the message that committing crimes is a bad thing that brings unpleasant consequences. On the other hand, you don't want people to think 'I've committed a felony and I'll never be able to get a job again or vote again, or rejoin society.' "
As for Johnson, his lawsuit may have been dismissed in federal court but the resulting attention to his case caused Florida officials to reexamine their policy regarding ex-felon residents from out of state. Last Friday, election officials in Gainesville gave Johnson a piece of good news, he is now legally authorized to vote in Florida. But he says he won't be doing any celebrating until November at the earliest. "I'm not taking anything for granted," he says, "until I see my name on the voter rolls."