Felon Voting Rights

Scott Stinson of Casper poses for a portrait in his home on Sept. 13. Stinson, who was convicted of a drug charge in the late 1990s, is one of only 58 Wyoming residents who have successfully petitioned to have their voting rights restored following a felony conviction.

ALAN ROGERS | Star-Tribune

Scott Stinson became his own statistic.

When Stinson was enrolled in Casper College’s paralegal program, he used to joke with classmate Craig Silva that felony drug charges were going to be part of the government’s scheme to create a large, nonvoting population.

“The ironic thing was, I ended up going to prison; he went to law school,” Stinson said of the Casper attorney.

Now 15 years away from a methamphetamine conviction, with his old friend’s help, Stinson will be voting in a general election for the first time since Bill Clinton was president.

In 2003, the Wyoming Legislature passed a modestly progressive law that enabled certain ex-felons to have their voting rights restored. It was the first glimpse of light that could be seen since 1907, when the original voting disenfranchisement law was put on the books.

However, in the nine years since the law passed, Stinson is one of only 58 people who have taken advantage of the act, according to the Wyoming Board of Parole. A recent study by the Sentencing Project found that nearly six percent of Wyoming citizens of voting age are disenfranchised because of a previous felony conviction.

Despite the 2003 reform, Wyoming remains one of the most burdensome states in which to regain voting rights, say experts. All but 11 states permit ex-felons to vote with no restrictions.

Conditions for Wyoming are strict and absolute. The applicant must have only been convicted of one nonviolent felony and must additionally wait five years from the completion of his or her sentence.

The effect of Wyoming’s law is something Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, has encountered countless times during his door-to-door campaigns. He said often citizens will immediately brush him off, offering only “I’m a felon,” as an explanation.

“It’s a very disenfranchised district,” he said of his own District 43.

Zwonitzer said that many citizens were unaware that they are now eligible to regain their voting rights after a previous felony conviction. Others just don’t want to talk about it.

“[The current laws] are contradictory to the whole concept that, ‘Once you pay your dues, we let you back into society,’” said Dan Fetsco, deputy director of the Board of Parole.

Fetsco agrees, both on theoretical and pragmatic levels, that the law should encourage reintegration.

“Every time there is an election, they are shut out, and it’s a reminder that can be very disheartening,” he said. “If we want to keep people from re-offending, we should help them assimilate back into society as much as possible.”

For the past several legislative sessions, Zwonitzer has attempted to introduce a bill that would ease the burden of recovering voting rights, albeit to no avail. Zwonitzer proposes to cut the five-year waiting period down to a one-year minimum, and to provide ex-felons with an application for the restoration of voting rights upon release.

Critics of felon disenfranchisement say the laws are a cheap play out of the same conservative handbook as the controversial voter identification laws. Many believe both are ploys to keep statistically Democratic voters away from the polls.

Zwonitzer, a Republican, said the concept of losing your rights as a felon is archaic, with roots dating back to English Common Law.

“We’ve evolved as a society,” he said.

Zwonitzer said he’ll give it another go in 2013.

“I think its [support is] growing every year,” he said. “We never got it to the Senate, but I think we’ll have a good version in the House.”

The bill’s opposition rests on a simple, yet powerful concept in a state as red as Wyoming: If you want to maintain your rights, don’t commit a felony.

“There are a lot of people in the Legislature that don’t want to give ex-felons the right to vote under any circumstances,” said Rep. Kermit Brown. “They are not crimes to be taken lightly, and that is the price you pay for being dysfunctional in society.”

Brown said he leans toward this sentiment and feels the current stipulations are appropriate. He said many feel easing the burden on ex-felons would be a slippery slope to clemency for violent offenders.

“What will be the next step? We’ll pardon them all?” he asked.

Stinson celebrated his 13th year of sobriety this month. In those years, Stinson went on to get his addictionology degree and has worked in the field as a counselor ever since. With his 3-year-old’s turtle sandbox in the front yard, his thick-rimmed glasses and careful mannerisms, Stinson said many are surprised to hear of his colorful past.

Although he has been denied a complete pardon, Stinson holds his certificate of reinstated voting rights with pride.

“I’ll never miss a general election again,” he said.

Stinson said he hopes more of his fellow ex-felons take advantage of the law, and wants them to know how important of a step it can be in fully regaining their life.

“Somewhere down the line, I started to believe in myself again,” he said. “There are a lot of people who think we can’t change. We most certainly can, and do.”

Reach crime reporter Megan Cassidy at 307-266-0534 or megan.cassidy@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @meganrcassidy.

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