Jagada Chambers was sent to prison for attempted second-degree murder in 2000. The story, as he tells it, was that he was on spring break with friends during college and got into a physical altercation with an acquaintance.
He was released four years later, in August 2004, and his understanding was that his voting rights were gone forever.
This all happened in Florida, which permanently bars citizens with felony convictions from voting, unless they receive an individual exemption after a hearing from the state’s clemency board, led by the governor.
“I committed my crime in Florida, so I thought I had been disenfranchised forever,” said Chambers. An estimated 10 percent of adults in Florida cannot vote because of a felony record, according to a 2016 report from The Sentencing Project.
But Chambers was never a Floridian, and so those strict rules didn’t apply to him; Chambers was just confused by the system.
“I was free over a decade not knowing that I was able to vote,” said Chambers.
Chambers, now 42 and living in Nevada, voted for the first time in 2016.
“It’s a design … to prevent people of color from voting,” said Chambers, who now works on voting rights with other previously incarcerated people in Las Vegas. Research has shown that racial disparities in sentencing disproportionately affect African-Americans.
In the midst of legal proceedings over the system earlier this year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s spokesman John Tubbs defended the practice. “The Governor believes that convicted felons should show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities,” he said in a statement.
As Chambers’ story shows, barriers to voting can have an impact beyond what the law says and does.
Making it harder to vote
Many people say they don’t vote because they’re inconvenienced or they’re discouraged; laws and rules can contribute to that.
In 2016, four percent of registered voters did not vote because of “registration problems,” according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. Another three percent pointed to “transportation problems,” and two percent cited “inconvenient hours or polling places.”
Research has shown that one factor consistently linked with higher vote turnout is the ability to fix a registration issue at the time of voting. One of these registration problems is tied to an upsurge in voter purging.
Across the country, the rate at which people are being purged from the voting rolls has increased substantially compared to a decade ago, according to a report from the Brennan Center published this summer. The analysis found about four million more people were purged between 2014 and 2016 than in the equivalent period between 2006 and 2008.
“We also found that there was a particular increase in areas that used to be covered by the Voting Rights Act Section 5,” said Jonathan Brater, counsel with the Brennan Center’s democracy program and co-author of the report. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the requirement in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that some southern states and other jurisdictions around the country with a history of racial discrimination seek federal approval before implementing changes to their election rules and procedures.
One of those states was Georgia.
“Georgia has had a number of problematic and controversial voter registration and purging practices over the last few years,” said Brater.
Georgia had a law that rejected voter registration forms if certain information on the form, such as the hyphen in a person’s last name, didn’t precisely match the spelling in other state databases. It also currently has a program that removes registered voters from the rolls if they haven’t voted in the past four federal elections and have not responded to a letter in the mail.
Showing up to vote is not a good measure of eligibility, Brater said, “For the simple fact that many people skip elections.”
But the Supreme Court recently upheld a similar policy in Ohio. Had that decision been in place on Election Day 2016, an estimated 7,500 who voted would not have been eligible to vote, according to a Supreme Court brief filed by Demos and the ACLU, as well as an admission by the Ohio secretary of state.
Many experts say voter purges are necessary to ensure accurate voting records and remove people who’ve died or moved. Brater agrees, but he worries they have further consequences: “Voter purges can have the effect of making it more difficult for people who are not necessarily the most regular voters.”
Merritt Hubert knows this firsthand. The thirty two-year-old was kicked off the voting rolls in 2015. He was accused of not living at the address on file.
But Hubert gestured to the yellow mobile home behind him, off a dusty, rural side road in a tiny Georgia town about 100 miles east of Atlanta, and said he’s lived here the whole time. In fact, Hubert said the letter accusing him of not living here was mailed to this address.
“Basically, they just wanted to scratch our names off the list, period, that we don’t live in Hancock County,” he said, referring to the county Board of Elections.
Georgia has a system that allows neighbors to challenge each other’s voter eligibility. Supporters say it prevents voter fraud. In 2015, ahead of a competitive local election, this system was used en masse in Hancock County to challenge the voting eligibility of approximately 17 percent of all registered voters in Sparta, Ga., most of whom were black. Roughly three-quarters of the county’s population is black.
“Basically I think it’s a racism thing,” said Hubert. “They want(ed) whites to run the town.”
But Nancy Stephens, a member of the Board of Elections, strongly disagreed race had anything to do with the case, and says the accusations of discrimination have been “blown out of proportion.” She insists she was trying to clean up a system that had been neglected for years.
“Our electors list was not current — people that should have been removed, deceased people, people that were not living in the county [were still on the list],” she said. “The list had not been cleaned up for quite some time.”
Stephens, who wanted to be clear she was speaking to NPR as an individual and not on behalf of the board as a whole, insisted she was trying to make the elections more “legal” and “honest.”
“We followed Georgia state law,” she said. “The citizens that brought the challenges … they had talked to neighbors, and they were told that the people didn’t live where they were saying they live.”
But Hubert and another Hancock County man whose name was removed from the voter rolls, Johnny Thornton, both feel they were accused by hearsay, and they think the goal was voter suppression. They joined others in filing a lawsuit against the Board of Elections.
In a settlement, the board denied its motive was racial discrimination.
Still, the board agreed to change how it reviews challenges, the county remains under the oversight of a judge, and most people’s names, including Hubert’s, were added back to the voting rolls.
Brater with the Brennan Center said that often doesn’t fix the problem. “When people have bad experiences with the voting system, a lot of people react to that by saying, ‘Well forget about it, I’m not going to do this again,'” he said.
“It has discouraged a lot of people from voting,” said Hubert. “But not me.”
He says he’s now more determined to vote.