When Arkansans are released from prison, they can go through a process to have their voting rights restored. However, some face barriers and never complete their application.
Kaleem Nazeem was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 17.
But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled juveniles convicted of murder cannot receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole. In 2016, the court decided the ruling could be applied retroactively and the Jonesboro resident was released in 2018 after being incarcerated for 28 years.
Nazeem registered to vote for the first time that same year and cast his first ballot.
“Over the years I used to always think about freedom, you know what my freedom looked like,” he says. “And one of the typical definitions of freedom to me was being able to vote, being able to be an active representative in my community.”
Nazeem says it was important to register to vote and this year, he’ll be casting a ballot in his first presidential election.
“I’m very excited and enthusiastic about that,” he says.
Nazeem is one example of how Arkansans lose the right to vote when they are convicted of a felony. According to the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office, 2,605 registrants were removed from voter rolls in 2019 for being convicted felons.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, it has become common practice in the United States to make felons ineligible to vote, but states’ approaches to the matter vary. For example, Maine and Vermont residents convicted of a felony never lose the right to vote even while they’re incarcerated.
In 11 states, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored, face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence (including parole and probation) or require additional action before voting rights can be restored.
Arkansans convicted of a felony can have their voting rights restored once they’re released from prison if they meet certain criteria. They must have been discharged from probation or parole; paid all probation or parole fees; satisfied all terms of imprisonment; and paid all applicable court costs, fines or restitution.
HOW TO RESTORE VOTING RIGHTS
Josh Bridges, an election systems analyst at the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office, says felons must obtain proof they have met these requirements to be eligible to register to vote. Bridges says a probation or parole officer can typically help guide someone through the process of gathering the necessary paperwork.
“Once you have that documentation, all you have to do is go to the county clerk’s office, show it to them, fill out a voter registration application and at that point you should be good to go,” he says.
Kaleem Nazeem says the process was smooth for him because he had his paperwork in hand when he was released and he knew the law. However, Nazeem says others face barriers like not knowing they can restore their voting rights or once they do, they run into issues obtaining paperwork to complete the process.
For example, say someone was released in 1990 but is still on parole. Once they exhaust their parole, tracking down that information from years ago may prove problematic.
“They have to backtrack to the unit they were released from and there might be inadequate files on record and things of that nature,” Nazeem says.
Because of that, some people just give up.
“It’s a process, but sometimes it can be more overwhelming than people are willing to go through,” he says. “So a lot of times, in my opinion, that’s why guys forsake their vote.”
Nazeem has helped with voter education efforts through his work with the Arkansas chapter of The Poor People’s Campaign. Although Nazeem was able to restore his voting rights without issue, he says the process is not a fair one. When someone is released from prison and exhausts their parole, he says they shouldn’t have to go through a different process than everybody else.
“I just have a thing that if we want people to be better, we got to treat them better,” Nazeem says. “If you want a person to act like a role model citizen within society, then we have to be role models to them.”
More information about steps to take for restoring your voting rights and expunging your record can be found at the Office of the Secretary of State. Oct. 5 is the deadline to register to vote in Arkansas. You can check your voter registration status at www.voterview.ar-nova.org.