With the 2018 midterm elections less than six months away, the voter rolls could gain a few names if a certain demographic group becomes aware of its rights.
Former South Carolina felons face many challenges reintegrating back into society – finding housing, food and work. Due to these immediate daunting needs, most don’t know about the restoration of their voting rights.
Policies vary from state to state, ranging from felons in Maine and Vermont never losing their right to vote at all, to a complete loss of voting rights indefinitely in 13 states, including Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida.
South Carolina is one of 21 states which allows former felons to restore their voting rights after serving their entire sentence, including parole and/or probation.
Chris Whitmire, South Carolina State Election Commission director of public information and training, said there is no waiting period.
“As soon as the terms of a sentence are complete, a person can register,” Whitmire said. “The person can register like anyone else — online, by mail, at the DMV or other motor voter agencies and in person at the voter registration office.”
Mount Pleasant attorney Shirene Hansotia said many South Carolina felons incorrectly believe that their conviction bars them from voting for life. A former Charleston County public defender, Hansotia dedicates a lot of time to assisting with re-entry issues.
She has worked with South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and currently serves on the board of directors for Turning Leaf, an organization based in North Charleston that advocates for formerly incarcerated men.
As criminal justice chair of the League of Women Voters in Charleston, Hansotia has been working with S.C. Department of Corrections management to disseminate voting rights information to all inmates as they are about to re-enter society.
“Not all states are required to inform returning citizens about their voting rights,” she said. “South Carolina is one of those states not required by law to inform individuals as they prepare to re-enter our communities about their right to vote.”
Hansotia said SCDC has vowed to help dispel that misnomer, with the help of the League of Women Voters and other organizations. The League is also working with local jails to educate detainees of their rights.
“Those being held in jail on pending charges are entitled to vote via absentee ballot, as long as they are not currently on probation,” Hansotia said.
She will visit the Charleston County Detention Center periodically to speak about voting rights and hopes to work with detention center staff to make the absentee voting process more streamlined for those expressing the desire to cast a ballot.
Hansotia said there are many reasons the policy of restoring voting rights to returning citizens makes sense.
“The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with dramatic increases in the prison population over the past 25 years correlating with the ‘war on drugs’ era,” Hansotia said. “America has five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners.”
League of Women Voters of South Carolina Co-President Holley Ulbrich said she believes convicted felons should be allowed to register to vote after completing their sentences.
“The primary purposes of sentences are to deter crime, to protect society from dangerous criminals and to prepare the convicted person for a productive re-entry into society,” she said. “If the state feels that (the former felon) is no longer a danger to society, then the focus should be on rehabilitation, which includes restoring the privilege and responsibility of voting.”
Hansotia said it will take many volunteers across the state working inside jails to educate people about their voting rights and enlisting the help of jail management and local election boards will make the process more efficient.
“Those who have completed their sentences have paid their debt,” she said. “Restoring their right to vote gives them a stake in shaping the society they are returning to. It also strengthens the ties that bind us together as a democratic society.”
For more information about voter registration, visit scvotes.org/south-carolina-registration-information.