A record-setting number of Kansans went to the polls in last week’s election. But more than 21,000 residents were unable to join them.
That’s due to a state law that prevents those serving a felony conviction from voting, even if they’re out of prison but still on probation, parole or paying off fines related to their sentence.
And advocates say that scores of other individuals could have voted but didn’t because they were unaware their rights had been restored.
That was certainly the case for Marc Showalter, who got out of Lansing Correctional Facility in May 2018, after spending "most of his adult life" behind bars.
Figuring out how to get registered to vote was not a top priority for Showalter, who was focused on ensuring he could stay with a friend or secure a tag and title for his car.
Even as he got a job at the Leavenworth Detention Center and found stable housing, voting remained on the back burner for Showalter.
"That is the least of your concerns," he said. "You have a lot of stuff to figure out. I’m not talking just the major things ... There is a million little things that you have to do and learn. Sometimes those important issues can take a backseat because, the perception is, they don’t affect your immediate situation."
It wasn’t until well after he bought a house in Kansas City, Mo., last year that it dawned on him that he could vote once he completed his parole.
While Showalter did register to vote earlier this year, the rules about whether he was eligible to actually cast a ballot legally confused him and he eventually wound up not doing so.
"I think the common impression is that, once you’re convicted of a felony, you lose your right to vote and you have to go through some sort of special situation or circumstances to get that right reinstated," he said.
Jim Nichols, the executive director of the Mission-based nonprofit Reaching Out From Within, said in the rare instances where individuals come already interested in learning about re-registering to vote, it is because a friend or family member planted that seed.
The group, which focuses on helping formerly incarcerated individuals re-enter society, does include information about civic engagement in their orientation process, alongside housing, health care and other services.
But Nichols noted that not all of the program’s alumni stay in touch, making it difficult to get a sense of whether they registered to vote, because it takes around three years on average to complete the required probation or parole terms.
"Once they’re released it’s not a high priority, it’s not on their minds because they’re looking at those basic food, shelter, clothing needs," Nichols said. "They’re looking so hard at those things that are immediate that even three years out is a long time in the scheme of things."
Kansas law more lenient – but gaps remain
Roughly 1% of the state’s voting population is still unable to vote because they are currently serving a felony sentence, according to a recent report from a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota. It was published by the Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for criminal justice reform.
While that may not seem like a large number, roughly half of the the 21,000 voters that figure represents have been released from prison or jail but are still completing their probation or parole.
And Black voters account for more than a quarter of that population, despite representing only 6% of the state’s population, according to the 2010 Census.
Kansas has a more lenient policy than other states with respect to felons voting.
Residents automatically are able to re-register to vote after completing the terms of their sentence, which includes not just prison time but also any probation or parole that might come along with it.
That differentiates it from some of its regional peers. Nebraska, for instance, requires felons wait two years after completing their sentence before regaining their voting rights.
And Iowa residents are permanently barred from voting following a felony conviction, although Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed a constitutional amendment to end this practice.
But far more residents fall into the same category as Showalter in that they have served their felony conviction and are eligible to vote but are unaware they can.
That is in part because Kansans have to actively re-register to vote in the county in which they live, which could be different from where they were incarcerated or where they lived before their sentence.
Those leaving prison are not informed that they have to do this and activists say that it can get lost in the shuffle for re-entrants who are more focused on getting back on their feet.
"People aren’t always informed of what their rights are when they are re-entering," said Nadine Johnson, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas. "In Kansas, for example, we don’t have any registration at discharge service for when people leave prison ... I think it is the responsibility of the system to inform people and educate them that this is a possibility."
And groups do not appear to be targeting those with past felony convictions in their voter outreach efforts or voter registration drives.
"They want the minority vote, they want the female vote, they want the Christian vote," Showalter said. "Nobody is out there saying ’I need the convicted felon vote.’ "
Another complicating factor in Kansas is that officials consider fines and certain forms of restitution as being part of a person’s sentence.
State officials have zeroed in on the issue of unpaid fines for lesser offenses, such as traffic violations. Over 200,000 drivers as of last year had a suspended driver’s license due to unpaid fines, with lawmakers considering tweaks to allow them to remain behind the wheel.
For those convicted of a felony, similar financial barriers can exist to paying up. An American Bar Association study found that fines can run upwards of half a million dollars for some crimes, with an array of fees tacked on.
Nonpayment can land someone back in prison – and block them from voting.
"It is incredibly debilitating and it does end up criminalizing poverty," Johnson said.
Will criminal justice reform talks prompt change?
There has been mixed results nationally on the issue, advocates say.
Iowa’s governor restored the voting rights of tens of thousands of individuals via executive order earlier this year, provided they have completed their sentences.
In 2018, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow those convicted of most felony crimes to vote.
But a subsequent analysis found that very few residents have actually registered to vote, in large part due to state law requiring outstanding fines be paid – a requirement similar to what exists in Kansas.
Johnson said it was worth returning to the issue as state lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, become increasingly open to looking at changes to the criminal justice system.
The state has pursued ways of reducing its prison population, buoyed by the potential financial savings that could be realized. That includes more money invested in drug treatment and diversion programs, with more tweaks potentially set to come.
There is no reason voting rights can’t also be part of that, Johnson said, pointing to Maine and Vermont, two states that have no restrictions at all on felons voting.
And California voters on Nov. 3 approved a referendum allowing felons on parole to vote.
"We are in a climate of bipartisan desire for criminal justice reform," Johnson said. "We have seen some efforts in other states to make this a reality. And I think that in Kansas we really need to examine what is happening systematically to cause this level of disenfranchisement"
Nichols also said he would be in favor of seeing more of a concerted effort from civic engagement groups to target individuals who were incarcerated.
Individuals who are engaged in political and civic matters, he said, were less likely to re-offend.
And he noted the process can be a boost to a person’s self-confidence as they attempt to find their feet following a felony conviction.
"I think it would be a great thing," Nichols said. "I think even something as simple as restoration of voting rights could make a difference in a person’s life as far as their self-image and dignity ... I think that could have quite a weight against returning to crime or future incarceration."