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Group: State laws keep 200,000 felons from voting in Arizona

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PHOENIX – Jean Salazar is serving three years probation and must pay restitution after pleading guilty to felony theft for writing herself more than $74,000 in unearned paychecks when she worked as a doctor’s office manager.

Because of that felony record, under Arizona law she won’t be able to vote in this year’s election. It’s among the reasons she regrets what she did.

“Without your voice in the voting process, you can’t change what’s frustrating you,” Salazar said.

As a first-time felon guilty of a single count, Salazar’s right to vote will be automatically restored when she’s completed probation and paid restitution.

If she had multiple counts against her or previous felonies, Salazar would have to wait two years after completing a prison sentence or probation and paying restitution before she could petition a judge in her sentencing court to have her voting rights restored.

“It’s frustrating for me,” she said.

The $74,000 in restitution will take years to pay off, especially considering employment challenges that felons face.

“For some people that would mean, ‘I’m not even going to be able to vote for the next 50 years,’” she said. “For some people that may be never.”

The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for prison and sentencing reform, estimates that 200,000 felons in Arizona, half of whom aren’t in prison, aren’t eligible to vote in the Nov. 6 election.

Marc Mauer, the group’s executive director, said disenfranchising felons doesn’t make sense.

“Fundamentally, democracy is about participation by everyone, and we don’t put a character test on the right to vote,” Mauer said. “By excluding people because of felony convictions, we’re confusing legislative goals of punishment with forfeiting legitimate rights of citizenship.”

But Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a right-leaning think tank, said society has a right to question whether felons should be allowed to vote.

“You’ve paid your debt to society in the sense that you are now allowed to come and go as you choose, but that doesn’t mean society has to forget that you committed a serious crime,” he said.

A former deputy assistant attorney general for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Clegg has spent years studying and talking about equal rights. He testified before Congress in the late 1990s in support of state laws on felon disenfranchisement.

Clegg said he agrees with full restitution requirements for people trying to restore their voting rights.

“If you owe a whole lot of money, that’s a measure of the seriousness of the crime,” Clegg said. “The more serious the crime the longer it should take to get the right back.”

But Donna Hamm, a prison reform advocate who founded and runs Tempe-based Middle Ground Prison Reform Inc., said the restitution requirements keep many felons off the rolls, some for life.

“It’s paying off the debts that can prevent you from getting your civil rights restored,” she said.

High restitution totals, Hamm said, could mean some felons are permanently disenfranchised from participating in the political process.

Solid information on the number of ex-felons in Arizona who have applied to restore their voting rights is hard to come by.

State statutes say ex-felons have to provide proof that all restitution and fees have been paid and submit proof of absolute discharge and documentation from the Arizona Department of Corrections. A spokesman for the department said the number of absolute discharges issued isn’t tracked.

Some courts track applications and outcomes for restoration of civil rights, at least partially. According to data obtained from the Superior Court of Maricopa County, since Jan. 1, 2008, approximately 9,800 people have applied for restoration of either the right to vote, to possess a firearm or to have their criminal records amended.

Of the 5,000 people who applied to restore their voting rights, about two-thirds were approved and a third were denied, the records showed.

However, the data is unclear. A person listed as having been denied could have applied without being required to, as is the case for first-time, one-count felony convictions. In some cases the section of the spreadsheet that listed whether a felon had his or her rights restored – or whether they applied for it at all – was blank.

A 2008 American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona study on felon disenfranchisement said state laws were poorly understood by many county election officials and that applications were processed in different ways in different counties, leaving the right to vote dependent on where a person lives.

“The problem is it’s a very onerous process here in Arizona,” said Alessandra Soler, the ACLU of Arizona’s executive director.

The study found that the majority of county election officials incorrectly responded to basic questions about which people with felony convictions can vote, a situation that Soler said remains the same today.

“We’re still hearing from people that it’s very, very difficult to get their rights restored,” Soler said.

When people submit the required paperwork, she said, there’s no guarantee they can actually attend the hearing where the decision is made.

In Pima County, for instance, the process is open. In Maricopa County, it’s a closed-door hearing, so there’s no way for a felon to testify that he or she is an upstanding citizen or, if the application is denied, to know what criteria the judge used to make the decision, Soler said.

The ACLU study estimated that more than 176,000 people couldn’t vote in 2008 because of the laws.

In a study of state-level felon disenfranchisement released this summer, The Sentencing Project pegged the national number of disenfranchised felons at roughly 5.85 million. Arizona’s estimated total, 199,734, represents more than 4 percent of the state’s voting-age population, a figure nearly double the national percentage.

Clegg said he was “unimpressed” with The Sentencing Project’s state-level report.

“To me, and I think to most people, the scary thing is not that these folks aren’t allowed to vote but that there are so many crimes being committed,” he said.

Also unable to vote Nov. 6 is Josh Vander Kamp, a father of two who leads an average life, working, paying taxes and running a household with his wife, Katie, in Apache Junction. Vander Kamp has two felony convictions from 2004 and 2005 related to drug paraphernalia and possession of a burglary tool.

In 2011, years after serving his prison sentence and paying all his fines, he said he tried to get his right to vote restored but was denied without any indication as to the reason or what he needs to do to get it back.

Vander Kamp said he’s moved well beyond his past and deserves to have his rights back but is frustrated by the process.

“It’s a matter of me sending in a piece of paper and praying to God,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the election nears and debates with friends and family on Facebook heats up, he wants to participate but never feels quite right.

“I pay taxes, I work, I definitely have opinions as far as politics go, but I feel kind of stupid,” Vander Kamp said. “I talk politics with people, but then I can’t vote. So why am I even talking?”