Many felons don’t know they can vote in Michigan, says Kalamazoo NAACP

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Felons can vote.
Voting rights for people convicted of felonies in the state of Michigan are restored upon their release from prison or jail.

The Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP wants people to know that.

“I was doing voter registration and I ran across this gentleman. I asked if he was registered and he told me he wasn’t,” says Wendy Fields, president of the local chapter of the civil rights organization. “And the reason he wasn’t -- he said he hadn’t voted in decades – was because he had a felony.”

“I said, “So you know you still can vote?’ And he said, ‘No, I didn’t.’”

“When you vote, it gives you the power to speak to the people in power.”Fields says she ran across him and two other individuals about a month ago. One thought he couldn’t vote because he had more than one felony. But the other assumed that because he had a felony record, he couldn’t vote.”

So she and others at the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People felt they needed to be very intentional about getting the word out. To put things in an easy-to-understand format, the organization commissioned a video that features several local people who announce themselves as convicted felons, then go on to talk about exercising their right to vote.

They are men and women of various ethnicities who are outspoken about their lives and their pasts “and have not let those hinder them from things,” Fields says.

The video was produced by Precision Production, of 606 Bryant St. It was started a couple of years ago by new entrepreneur Josh Gibson. The NAACP is working to promote the 1 minute and 48-second minute video on multiple social media platforms.

View it on Facebook here.

Fields said in Michigan, felons can vote “As long as you are not actively serving a sentence.”

“You have to vote to put the people you want to in office to represent your neighborhood and to fight for the agenda you want to see pushed.”Michiganders do not permanently lose their voting rights, according to Findlaw.com. And those who are in jail (but not convicted) and waiting for their trial to start, can vote using an absentee ballot.

Convicted felons can vote if they are:

• Awaiting arraignment (the process of having a judge formally present the charges against you);

• Charged with a felony but not convicted;

• Newly released from jail or prison;

• On parole or probation;

• In the process of appealing a conviction.

While Fields says she has no statistics to indicate how many more people that information may send to the polls on Nov. 3, she says the organization will check to see how many of the people its members registered at the Kalamazoo County Jail this week and next week follow through and vote.

In 2016, Michigan courts saw 47,347 felony convictions, according to Kahryn A. Riley, of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit research, and educational institute. And while she stated in a 2018 report that the number of convictions had been declining, tens of thousands of people are convicted of felony crimes (those with sentences of at least two years) each year. But most of them will see little time in prison. Less than 20 percent of the felony convictions that year – some 9,648 – resulted in a prison sentence.   

“Many people of color have marched, fought, and died so you can have the right to vote.”Tuesday evening, while many people were at home at 9 p.m., starting to watch the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Fields and Cory King, chairman of the local NAACP’s political action committee, were finishing up two hours of voter registration at the jail, going cell to cell. (Sept. 29 was the first time since the COVID-19 shutdown that the NAACP has been able to visit the Kalamazoo County Jail to do voter registration.) They were able to register about 40 new voters, Fields says.

And that was an eye-opener for many of those incarcerated.

“Tonight at the jail, it was (people asking things) like, ‘You mean, I’m a citizen? I’m a real citizen and I can vote?’” she says.

Some people don’t broach the subject or ask questions about it because they are a bit ashamed, she says. Shame and the fear of violating other laws could have a chilling effect on any of those who have seen stories about a Texas woman who was sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison for voting illegally in the 2016 presidential election.

Crystal Mason, the African-American mother of three, now 45, had been convicted in 2011 and jailed for tax fraud. She pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the government, related to preparing income tax returns that contained false information, according to news reports. 

According to CNN coverage, Mason was out of prison and was on federal supervised release when she cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 elections. She said she did not know she was not allowed to vote and was not told at the polling place that she could not vote.

But Texas prohibits convicted felons from voting while they serve their sentence, while on parole, or while on probation or under supervision. And prosecutors said she should have known. Mason has been considered a poster child for the need to alleviate voter rights suppression. She continues to appeal her case.

The NAACP is hoping that the video of Kalamazoo-area voters, for which it paid about $1,000, will pay dividends in terms of the impact it has on people’s lives and helping them have a say in the world around them. The money for the production was a donation that was designated to be used to support the organization’s efforts to register people for the 2020 census, fight the spread of COVID-19, do more youth engagement activities, engage voters, and other things, Fields says.

Lots of people who have been convicted of crimes are back in the working world and doing well.

“What I wanted to depict was some of them wear suits,” Fields says of the video. “Some of them can be Black. Some can be White. They’re not stereotypically tattooed up and things like that. … We are just trying to show: Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Information about voter registration, including allowing individuals to register, is available at: vote.org and www.michigan.gov/sos

In Michigan voter registration deadlines are Oct. 19 for online registration, postmarked by Oct. 19 for mail registration, and in person Nov. 3 by 8 p.m. at specific designated locations in each community. You cannot register to vote at your polling place on election day. 

More information about the NAACP is available here.   

More election coverage: 

What will COVID-19 mean for the November election? Secretary of State predicts safe polling

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.