Kyeesha Alexander found work at a Sonic Drive-In and a place to live with her parents after being released from prison in May.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has made re-entry difficult, the 27-year-old from Enid says she’s dedicated to staying clean and gaining financial independence. Free from state supervision, she’s able to travel freely and live without fear of a parole violation sending her back to prison.
One thing Alexander still can’t do is vote. That’s because Oklahoma requires those with a felony conviction to complete their full, court-mandated sentence before restoring their voting rights. Supporters of the statute argue that a person who breaks the law shouldn’t be trusted with a voice in the political process.
In July 2019, Alexander was convicted of second degree forgery and sentenced to seven years in prison. Less than four months later on Nov. 1, Alexander’s sentence was commuted to one year as part of the largest single-day mass commutation in U.S. history. But in the eyes of the State Election Board, she’s still serving out her court-mandated calendar sentence of seven years and won’t be eligible to vote until July 2026.
Oklahoma requires court clerks in all 77 counties to send a monthly list of people convicted of felonies to their local county election board. The election officials must cancel the voter registration of anyone who resides in the county, and forward the names of non-residents to the State Election Board.
Someone like Alexander may not register to vote again until their court-mandated sentence is complete. The State Election Board is not notified when the Department of Corrections chooses to discharge a person early or the governor’s office approves a commutation request.
Prior to being released, Alexander says nobody explained this process to her.
“Everyone in prison believes that once you’re sentenced to a felony, you’re no longer able to vote ever again,” she said.
Each state imposes its own voting restrictions for felons, which can contribute to the confusion. While Maine and Vermont let their prisoners cast mail-in ballots from their cells, Kentucky permanently bans any person with a violent felony conviction from ever voting. An estimated 5.1 million people nationwide are disenfranchised because of their criminal record, according to an Oct. 14 report by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice research and reform advocacy group.
The Sentencing Project estimates 56,995 Oklahomans are disenfranchised. However, this number is likely missing thousands of people like Alexander who have been discharged from Department of Corrections supervision but are still serving out their full sentences.
Fighting Misinformation and Increasing Registration
Many Oklahomans with a felony conviction learn of their voting rights when they meet Donna Thompson.
Thompson, the prison ministry director for the Oklahoma Baptist State Convention, has mastered the state’s voting law. She says formerly incarcerated people most commonly assume that their felony conviction permanently bars them from voting. Others believe that as long as they’re not in prison, they’re eligible to vote.
Oklahoma’s voting law can be difficult to grasp, Thompson says, because the vast majority of inmates accumulate good behavior credits and are released before their full calendar sentence is completed.
“Many times we have to show people that the Department of Corrections is one agency and the State Election Board is another agency,” Thompson said.
Thompson uses a simple equation — conviction date plus their original court-mandated sentence — to calculate when a formerly incarcerated person’s voting rights will be restored. For now, Thompson and other voting rights advocates are using this same equation for commutation recipients.
Intended to correct an unjust or excessive sentence, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has approved thousands of commutation requests since 2018. That’s a stark increase from 2014, when the Pardon and Parole Board didn’t review a single commutation application.
With the number of commutations on the rise, Thompson and State Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, say they’ve asked the State Election Board and attorney general’s office to clarify if commutation recipients must serve out their original sentence before being eligible to vote. So far, Young says neither agency has provided a clear answer.
“I can’t get anyone to answer these questions for me,” he said. “I’m scared to death to tell those individuals to go and register.”
In an email, State Election Board Spokesperson Misha Morr said the agency can’t advise people on whether or not they’re eligible to vote, and they should contact an attorney if unsure.
New legislation would likely be needed to restore voting rights to commutation recipients, as well as others who are discharged from state supervision early, Young said. He hopes to discuss the matter during the next legislative session, though he says it could be difficult to convince some tough-on-crime legislators that the state’s voting laws need updating.
“Why are we penalizing folks who have, to their best of their abilities, done what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “They’re working, going back to school, trying to earn a living. We should at least talk about it and see if there’s some pathway for them to exercise their constitutional rights.”
Many Released, Few Registered to Vote
A year later, most of the 527 people released as part of last November’s mass commutation have managed to stay free from state supervision.
An Oklahoma Watch analysis of Department of Corrections data found 427, or 81% of the commutation recipients, are not in prison or on parole. An analysis of voter registration data found just 25 of these 427 people, or 5.9%, are registered to vote.
Many of the 427 are in the same situation as Alexander — under no state supervision but still serving out a court-mandated sentence. Hundreds of others have completed their calendar-day sentences for low level drug and property crimes.
Before leaving prison, Oklahoma inmates work with case managers to develop a pre-release plan. These plans can help inmates find housing and identify job opportunities. Voting is a subject left unaddressed.
States like Washington have passed legislation requiring that inmates be notified of their voting rights before leaving state custody. According to Young, Oklahoma needs to develop its own plan to inform felons that their right to vote will eventually be restored.
“If you’re coming out of prison, you may not be listening to everything that’s being said to you because you’re excited about getting released,” Young said. “But there ought to be some way we can sit down with them and outline when they’ll be able to vote.”
Voter Registration and Recidivism Rates
Allowing and encouraging more convicted felons to vote could help drive down recidivism rates, according to a 2019 study by University of Pittsburgh political science professor Victoria Shineman.
Shineman reached out to dozens of formerly incarcerated people in Virginia, informed them that their right to vote had been restored and asked if they’d be willing to participate in a study. Those who agreed were surveyed about their trust in government both before and after casting a vote.
After registering to vote, the participants were much more likely to trust government and the democratic process, both indicators that a person is less likely to reoffend.
“You start to view yourself not as a criminal anymore, but as a citizen,” Shineman told Oklahoma Watch. “You have confidence in your abilities, having trust in other people and institutions. All of those are characteristics and attitudes that make it easier for a person to reintegrate and build positive social networks.”
Public support for restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions has increased steadily since the 1990s, and law changes in states such as Florida and Iowa reflect the shift, Shineman said.
Most Americans draw the line at letting incarcerated people vote. A 2019 Hill-HarrisX poll found that 69% of Americans oppose the idea of letting inmates cast mail-in ballots.
Alexander, the commutation recipient from Enid, hasn’t paid much attention to politics this election cycle. But there are areas where she thinks government leaders can help people in similar situations as her.
For starters, she says it’s hard for people with criminal records to find adequate housing and employment, which can lead some to re-offend. It can also be difficult to scrape by on a full-time job that pays at or just above the minimum wage.
If there’s no change to state law, the 2022 midterms and 2024 general elections will likely pass without Alexander’s vote. Her voice could be heard by 2026, though.
“I’ve just been expecting not to be able to vote,” she said. “Thinking about it is kind of exciting.”
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers democracy for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.
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