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Get-out-the-vote Effort Extends to Jails

In the presidential election, we've heard a lot about the black vote, the Latino vote, white women, white men, young voters. You get the picture. But what about the ex-felon vote? The voting rights of convicted felons depends on where they're incarcerated. Maine and Vermont are the only states that allow felons to vote while in prison. Eleven states restrict voting rights of felons even after they've completed their sentences. Not so in North Carolina. Voting rights are restored once felons have done their time. Plus, people convicted of misdemeanors have the right to vote in jail. In Mecklenburg County, one group is publicizing these rights and trying to get "early voting" in jails. There are more than 2,500 inmates in the Mecklenburg County Jail. About 67 percent of these inmates are African-American. Black voters tend to vote Democrat. So Michael Lawson knows some people are skeptical of his motives to increase voting access in county jails. Lawson heads the African American Democratic Caucus in Mecklenburg County. "When we thought of doing this, that thought didn't come in the picture. We've been thinking about this for a few years. It's really a civil rights violation," he says. Lawson recently met with volunteers at a Texas Land and Cattle Steakhouse to map out a strategy. Hundreds of brochures and posters are on a table that target ex-felons and people convicted of misdemeanors. There are plans to distribute 15,000 brochures in 12 counties - all counties that have an African-American Democratic Caucus. The brochures say, "You've been Locked Up, Don't be Locked Out!" "Anyone in jail, even if they've been serving time for 2, 3 years, it doesn't matter. As long as they haven't been convicted of a felony, they have the right to vote. Even if they have been convicted of a felony, and served all their time, they automatically have their rights restored to vote." This information gives Chris Gore some hope. He's from Brunswick County on the coast, and a student at UNC-Charlotte. He plans to take some brochures home. "A lot of people back home, a small-town rural area, there are young black males, drug dealers who have committed crimes and have been incarcerated are still under the impression they can't vote," Gore says. "We finally get a chance for an African American to run for president, (and they think) they can't vote. Now I have the knowledge to tell one small town that yes you can. That's my motivation - the fact that I can tell other young black males they can, that they do have an outlet to go vote and that it's not impossible. It's not over yet." The meeting at the steakhouse includes County Commissioner Valerie Woodard. The group wants to do more than spread the work about voting rights. It also wants to open up voting opportunities in county jails. "I hope to meet with the sheriff and see what we can do with organized voting from jails, because we're talking about paperwork," Woodard says. "We're not talking about releasing anybody or a security risk. We're talking about filling out a form and having it organized." Woodard tells the group that it would be best to have early voting available to inmates. That way, Woodard says they can get registered and vote at the same time. "The procedure is to get the authorization through the sheriff. The sheriff controls everything within the jail," she says. Mecklenburg County Sheriff Chip Bailey is tired of this topic. "They know exactly where I stand," Bailey says. Four years ago, he says the jail responded to concerns that inmates weren't being given an opportunity to vote. Ever since, Bailey says inmates have been told at every shift change, twice a day, that they can request an absentee ballot. He says inmates are also informed who is eligible to vote. "They know what it says. I suspect a lot of them can probably quote it to you," Bailey says. He's adamant that early voting won't take place at the jail. "We're going to do it the way we're doing it now - using absentee ballots. That is early voting, and that's the way anybody away from a voting precinct would have to vote. I don't think there's any reason to do it differently for people who are incarcerated." Bailey says he can recall only one or two inmates who have voted by absentee ballots. He doesn't think the number would change much if early voting was available to inmates. According to county jail figures, the average stay of an inmate is about 20 days. So Bailey says most will likely be free on bond by Election Day, or when early voting begins Oct. 16th. Pre-trial inmates make up about 60 percent of the jail's population. Those charged with a felony but haven't been convicted also have the right to vote, even if they're in jail awaiting trial. "Voting is not a priority to them people. Their priority is where they are and the status of their case. If voting was a priority to them, they probably wouldn't be in jail anyway." Back at the Steakhouse, Lawson and Woodard aren't optimistic about getting the sheriff's cooperation. "The sheriff can care less," Woodard says. Commissioner Woodard, who's seeking a fourth term, advises the group to also lobby the Commission in hopes of putting pressure on Sheriff Bailey. She says that's the only way to get him to do something he doesn't want to do.