When Chandrea McNealy was charged with drug possession in 2006, at the age of 18, the long-term consequences of the felony never crossed her young mind.
But as she got older, and especially when she became a mother, she began to realize how hard it would be to reacclimate to normal life after spending nine months in a Florida jail. It took five years before she found an employer who’d give her a job so that she could support her children, make rent, and pay off the fees and fines associated with her incarceration.
“It was at a Subway,” McNealy, now 34, told VICE News. “They took a chance on me and I worked at that Subway for four to five years. I held on to that job for dear life, and it didn’t even cover the bills.” And on top of all that, she realized, she was now barred from voting until her prison debts were paid off.
McNealy is one of 5.17 million Americans who, because they served time in prison, have had their right to vote stripped away, according to The Sentencing Project. It’s a phenomenon that disproportionately affects people of color; one out of 16 Black Americans has lost the right to vote, compared to one out of every 56 non-Black Americans.
Getting those rights back can feel impossible for people who are already struggling after regaining their freedom. Some states require the formerly incarcerated to pay off their restitution fees first, even as they’re trying to find a job or secure affordable housing. Other states require a direct plea to their state’s governor, whose judgment and mercy can be fickle.
“I felt horrible,” McNealy continued. “It makes you feel like the mistakes you made before you even thought about having children are now going to cause your children to suffer. It makes you wonder why—I served my time, I served my debt to society. Why can't we move on now?”
Eric Harris of Iowa City, Iowa, said he’s been a news junkie his entire life and always prided himself as someone who stays up on current events. But a two-year prison sentence for marijuana possession in 1999 meant he could never vote on the national and local issues he read about. For many years, Iowa barred all people with felony convictions from voting even after they served their time. If they wanted their rights reinstated, formerly incarcerated Iowans had to directly petition the governor, who would decide who gets them on a case-by-case basis.
“I thought about it from time to time, and it was kind of just kind of painful,” Harris said. “It was like, ‘Well, I can't vote, I can't do this, I can't do that. Then I'm just going to stay in the streets, because I don't feel like I'm a part of this country.’”
Feeling apart from the rest of society plays a huge role in recidivism, according to Gicola Lane, the statewide organizer for FreeHearts, a Tennessee organization advocating for local voter restoration laws. She’s worked with hundreds of people hoping to get their rights back since joining the organization in 2016 and knows that voter rights are just another obstacle for a portion of the population already dealing with so many other issues.
“When you’re unable to vote, on top of all those other issues like the hardships of searching for a job and housing, it just reinforces the feeling of being a second-class citizen that a lot of people express feeling after being released,” Lane said.
Frustrated by the many barriers to his reintegration, Harris returned to his former, illicit lifestyle, which eventually earned him another felony conviction in 2014, this time for eluding the police in his car. He narrowly avoided another stint in prison and instead spent the next four years under supervision while turning his life around for good. He made a conscious effort to make better decisions.
“When they tried to send me to prison in 2014, that was it,” he explained. “I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I have kids to raise, I can’t be in jail.’ So I decided to stop hanging out with certain people to get my life cleaned up, watch my surroundings, not go out to clubs and stuff like that. I just tried to stay away from all the bad elements.”
But by the time he’d decided to turn things around, he’d already spent 24 years of his life unable to vote.
So, after his supervised release was up in 2018, Harris decided to take direct action. He wrote an op-ed in the Des Moines Register in 2020, advocating for restoration of voting rights for felons like himself. He teamed up with organizations like the Iowa ACLU and sat for interviews with news outlets across the country, pushing the issue both nationally and at home.
His efforts, alongside many others in a similar position in Iowa, were eventually rewarded: In August 2020, Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, signed an executive order restoring voting rights to felons convicted of most crimes except murder and manslaughter.
Harris compared watching Reynolds sign the order to watching your favorite team win the Super Bowl. He felt the same excitement that November, when he cast his ballot for the first time ever.
“On the day that it was time to go vote, I took my son with me,” he said. “The climate in this country from 2016 on was pretty bad. So I felt like I did my job. I could finally exercise my rights as an American citizen and vote to get racist people out of the White House.”
Iowa is one of several states that has had a change of heart on the question of voting rights for former felons voting. Since 2016, several states have changed their disenfranchisement laws so that they affect fewer people, or have made it easier to get your rights restored after you’ve served your time. Kentucky, Virginia, Florida, Nevada, and Alabama have all passed laws responding to demands to return voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.
“Theoretically, these changes impact millions of people, but in reality it doesn’t mean these people are voting,” Bowie said. “A lot of states still have complicated processes. And even the ones that don’t, misinformation about how the laws used to work still persists among impacted communities. And even worse, secretaries of state, particularly in states where they don't really like the fact that the laws are getting more relaxed, will not train registrars properly.”
After prison, many people also feel a stronger sense of the impact elected leaders and policies can have on society, and the inability to vote means an inability to mold the kind of future they want for themselves and their loved ones.
“Being incarcerated is an experience of having the state control every aspect of your life 24/7,” Blair Bowie, an attorney and legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., said. “These are people who uniquely understand the power of government, and its impacts on people's lives. They're not under some misimpression that we can just go off and live in vacuums and ignore government. They know firsthand how important it is to exercise what levers we have over our democratic process.”
McNealy was especially interested in voting in local races, where she knew the outcomes would shape her children’s lives every day. “I wasn’t even trying to vote for the president; I was trying to vote for the people who sit on the district of the school board and the people who sit on the police commission. Those people […] play a big role in the things that happen in our community for our children. I wanted to be part of voting on who made those decisions, and I couldn’t be part of that.”
In 2017, Alabama passed a law narrowing the list of felony convictions barring offenders from polls, but several counties have hindered the process of granting former felons their rights back. Morgan County, for example, was still denying thousands of formerly incarcerated newly eligible voters as recently as last year because Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill refused to fund efforts to keep registrars throughout the state informed on the change in policy.
And nagging issues like restitution fees owed to the state and other financial burdens like public defender dues and outstanding fines also keep rehabilitated citizens from voting years after their release. In Tennessee and Florida, these fees must be paid off for the formerly incarcerated to regain their voting rights.
In Florida, pro-felon voting rights groups heavily contested the requirement to pay off prison fees, but a federal court eventually upheld the law despite objections by voting rights advocates and judges in lower courts.
McNealy said she was one of those unlucky people plagued by lingering fees related to her prison sentence in Florida. Owing more than $2,000 in fees to the state after her release in 2008 didn’t just keep her from voting: As long as she had an outstanding balance, Florida law also barred her from taking the state test required to become a nurse.
Luckily, this May, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition helped her cover the entirety of her debt. McNealy not only get her voting rights back, she also got a state-ordered exemption that allowed her to take the test needed to become a nurse.
“It was a life-changing moment,” she said. “I could finally step into the career that I've always wanted to step into. It's like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Unfortunately, for organizations like the Restoration Coalition in Florida and Free Hearts in Tennessee, covering the exorbitant fees can be a struggle to cover through fundraising.
“In 2020, of course, people were really amped up because we had this presidential election, they saw that there was this potential voting block that could change things, and so people wanted to donate to the cause,” Free Hearts’ Lane said.
“But when you don’t have an election right in front of you, sometimes it slows down the fundraising. And our funds can get depleted fast because some of these court costs and restitution are just so expensive.”
Alonzo Malone, 60, says it still bothers him that he didn’t get to vote for the country’s first Black president both times Barack Obama ran for office. The Bardstown, Kentucky, native lost his right to vote after spending eight years in prison for writing bad checks to cover his child support dues as he struggled to find employment.
After he was released in 2000, his financial troubles picked up right where they left off: To apply for his right to vote, he’d first have to scrounge up the cash to pay the $70 application fee.
While $70 might seem trivial to the average working American, Malone said coming up with the cash was next to impossible. Because employers were reluctant to hire someone with a felony on his record, he resorted to working day-labor odd jobs and restaurant gigs to barely make ends meet.
“I was maybe making $70 or $80 a day,” he said. “When you take the taxes from that, take out bus fare, then money to buy something to eat, I barely had money to put together. Because then I would have to save money throughout the weeks in order to put it all together and pay rent at the end of the month.”
And when he did manage to pull his pennies together to apply, his attempts to move on with his life were met with repeated rejection. He was denied his right to vote five times over 17 years and four Kentucky gubernatorial administrations.
“I felt like I was nothing, like I didn’t exist,” he told VICE News. “I was the Invisible Man with a scarlet ‘F’ on my forehead.”
There was a spark of hope in 2015 when, in his final month in office, then Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order restoring voting rights to thousands of felons who completed their sentences. But then, Beshear’s Republican successor, Gov. Matt Bevin, repealed that executive order.
Malone petitioned Bevin, who finally restored his right to vote in 2018, just a year shy of his reelection campaign. But when Bevin was up for reelection, Malone voted for current Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, son of Steve, who within days of being elected restored voting rights to more than 140,000 non-violent felons.
Today, Malone is a pastor at the New Christian Church in Louisville, and he has a bachelor’s degree in business, as well as a Culinary Arts degree. He runs his own catering service and said he takes pride in being a workaholic.
“In the last three or four years, there’s been an upward progression, and I’m so thankful,” he said. “Even though they told me I would never have my right to vote back, I just kept on believing that I could. It’s a reminder to myself that if I keep pressing on, anything is possible.”
For Malone, regaining the ability to vote not only provided him the second chance he was looking for after prison, it gave him hope in all other aspects of his life.
“I made some mistakes in life, but my heart is good.”
Tune in to REVOLT or VICE TV on Saturday, June 19th at 12:00pm ET, to watch the Juneteenth Town Hall & Celebration special encouraging young changemakers to exercise their political rights.
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