For Robin Wertz, the wait will be long before she can cast a ballot at an Oklahoma polling place.
Wertz, who runs a nonprofit center in Oklahoma City that helps people transition from prison back into society, is prohibited from voting in any election until 2024. That’s in spite of the fact that she has been out of prison for 11 years, works full-time, has never re-offended and can travel abroad with no restrictions.
“I’ve never even received a traffic ticket,” Wertz said of her time since leaving prison. “It’s like I’m still being punished.”
Wertz, 54, is among the tens of thousands of Oklahomans who have been convicted of felonies but are unable to vote until their sentences have been completed, including completion of probation or parole. Just as Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is projected to rise in coming years unless more reforms are enacted, the state also, by extension, could see a growing number of citizens banned from its voting booths.
As of last week, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections counted 27,131 incarcerated inmates and another 34,257 under community supervision, including probation and parole. Another 1,164 offenders were awaiting transfer to prison from jails. That brings the total number of people barred from voting because of felonies to more than 62,500.
The total is higher than the 58,302 estimated for the state in a national 2016 study of “felony disenfranchisement” by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that researches disparities in the criminal justice system. Oklahoma’s number represented nearly 2 percent of the state’s overall voting-age population. The organization estimated that 6.1 million people nationwide cannot vote in their state because of felony convictions – a figure that nearly doubled over the past two decades. Oklahoma’s rate was slightly below the national average, the study found.
A New Life, With No Vote
Wertz’s journey to prison and out stretches from Oklahoma to California.
Born and raised in Shawnee, she eventually moved to California with her then-husband. Drinking on weekends eventually turned into a cocaine habit. When they fell behind on property taxes on their home, she said she turned to selling dope. While in Norman, she decided to sell drugs and got caught.
After serving several months in a California jail on a minor drug charge, she was extradited back to Oklahoma to face the Cleveland County drug trafficking case. Her sentence in 2004 was a full 20 years: eight years of prison and 12 years of probation. She was paroled in 2007 and will be on unsupervised probation until 2024.
When she got out, Wertz began working at a restaurant and became a resident at Exodus House, which is part of Criminal Justice & Mercy Ministries. Two years later she went to work for Exodus House, ultimately becoming site director.
Wertz is a devout Christian and has steadily rebuilt a normal life. She works with former inmates who are trying to turn their lives around.
She isn’t required to check in with a probation officer. She has a passport and has traveled to Caribbean countries on vacation. No permission was needed.
Wertz said people who have a served time and been through the system deserve to be heard. The system unfairly takes away their right to vote, she said.
“It’s a way to keep them from having a voice,” Wertz said.
A Range of State Laws
States are allowed to set their own laws for voting, including if and when people who commit felonies are eligible to vote. Those laws apply to local, state and federal elections.
The result is a patchwork of laws that give varying degrees of freedom to people who have served time in the criminal justice system, The Sentencing Project study shows.
Oklahoma is essentially in the middle of the pack. A couple of states, Maine and Vermont, don’t have any restrictions on voting; in Vermont, for instance, inmates are notified 90 days before an election, receive voter guides and can vote by absentee ballot.
Oklahoma is among 18 states, including Arkansas and Texas, that restrict voting during prison, probation and parole. To enforce the law, the state requires court clerks in each county to send a monthly list of people convicted of felonies to the county election board. County election officials must cancel the registrations of those convicted and forward the information of non-residents to the State Election Board to be cancelled for their county of residence.
A dozen other states have a system that restricts voting after the sentence ends, either permanently or for a designated period of time. Another 14 states restrict voting only during the time spent in prison. Four states restrict voting during prison and parole.
Oklahoma’s law applies to felons who are still in jail, awaiting transfer to prison. Other jail inmates, in for misdemeanors or awaiting trial, can request absentee ballots by phone, mail or through jail officials.
A Restoration Trend
In at least a few states, efforts have arisen in recent years to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions.
“The issue has animated … conversation nationally and within states, and there have been active efforts to expand the (franchising of felony offenders) around the country,” said Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project.
Maryland, for example, ended its lifetime ban on voting for felons in 2007; then, in 2016, the state began allowing people on probation and parole to vote.
In Florida, voters will decide in November on a referendum that would automatically restore the voting rights of felons after they complete their sentence, with the exception of murderers and sex offenders. The state requires people with felony records to wait five to 10 years and go through an application process to get their rights restored.
Inmate advocacy groups say it’s unjust to take away a convicted felon’s ability to vote because voting is an inherent right and part of living in a democratic society.
“Just because you’re convicted of a felony doesn’t mean you should lose your basic rights in the democratic process,” said Brady Henderson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. “Our position is that this shouldn’t disqualify someone from being a full citizen, from participating in our democracy.”
Henderson said Oklahoma’s system of prohibiting voting by people on probation and parole means they are often denied that right for years, even after they’ve successfully established new lives.
“They’re living normal lives and very importantly, they are doing things like paying taxes,” he said.
Elected officials who support suspension or elimination of voting rights have said those with felony convictions should not be allowed immediately to influence the very laws that they have broken.
In Oklahoma, the conversation about easing voting restrictions has been more muted. In the last legislative session, state Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, filed a bill intended to clarify, but not change, how Oklahoma’s current system works.
Current law states that a person with a felony conviction “shall be ineligible to register for a period of time equal to the time prescribed in the judgment and sentence.”
Goodwin’s bill would clarify that that a person is eligible to vote after completing all of their court-ordered prison time, probation and parole. Goodwin, who could not be reached for comment, has also requested an interim study on the topic.
Reach reporter Ben Botkin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 418-6089.
State Voting Restrictions for Felons
All but two states impose some restriction on voting for people convicted of felonies, although the severity of the restrictions varies, a 2016 study by The Sentencing Project found. In Arizona, for example, a lifetime ban applies to those convicted of two or more felonies; in other states, all it takes is one. In California, voting rights are accorded to felons who are housed in a jail but not a prison. In some other states, the nature of the crime determines whether a person’s voting rights can be restored. Over the past decade, many states have taken steps to ease voting restrictions on people with felony convictions.
Prison, Parole, Probation
Prison, Parole, Probation, Post-Sentence