Ever since his own three-month stint behind bars, Steve Huerta has mentored fathers emerging from prison. But it soon dawned on him that they needed more than advice to break the cycle of joblessness and incarceration. What they needed, he decided, was political power.
So seven years ago, Mr. Huerta, a community organizer in San Antonio, began a door-knocking campaign to encourage former felons to vote, which is their right in Texas as long as they are no longer on probation or parole. Mr. Huerta has recruited formerly incarcerated people to head precincts, responsible for getting their neighbors to the polls. And he meticulously tracks the turnout rate of 98,000 voters with criminal records.
“This is an entirely new voting bloc,” said Mr. Huerta, who now represents his area on a statewide organizing committee for the Democratic Party in Texas. “It’s a political game-changer for struggling communities.”
Mr. Huerta is part of a growing national movement that is pushing to politically empower formerly incarcerated people by encouraging them to vote if they are eligible and pushing to restore their rights if they are not. Most states curb the voting rights of former felons to some degree; an estimated six million people nationwide are barred from voting because of felony convictions. But a number of states are now considering whether to get rid of the disenfranchisement laws that block felons from the polls.
In Florida, where 10 percent of adults can’t vote because of a felony conviction, a ballot initiative in November would automatically restore voting rights after a prison sentence has been completed. In New Jersey, state legislators are considering a bill that would allow people in prison to vote. It would be the third state, after Maine and Vermont, to do so.
Supporters say the movement gives former felons hope that they will one day overcome the stigma of incarceration and be accepted as responsible citizens, in addition to giving impoverished communities a greater voice. But many conservative groups fiercely oppose the changes, arguing that people need to first prove that they are upstanding members of society before they can vote.
Spearheaded by voting rights activists who have themselves served time in prison, the movement has racked up successes in recent years. In 2016, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia restored the voting rights of more than 150,000 people who had completed their sentences. And last year, Alabama passed a law that clarified which crimes stripped the right to vote, allowing thousands of nonviolent offenders to cast a ballot. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently announced that he will grant up to 35,000 parolees the right to vote.
“Rights restoration is all a part of a nationwide struggle to make America a real democracy,” said Assaddique Abdul-Rahman, a 54-year-old Virginia man who had struggled with homelessness and incarceration since age 16, when he was sent to prison for robbery. After his rights were restored by Mr. McAuliffe, he began to help other formerly incarcerated people register to vote. Eventually, a group called the New Virginia Majority hired him as an organizer.
“In prison, they made sure to tell us, ‘You will never be able to vote, unless the governor restores your rights,’” he said. “I knew that those who could not vote did not have power. We were the underbelly.”