March 12, 2010

NAACP to hold voter registration drives at prisons

ELBERT AULL

— By

Staff Writer

The NAACP will hold annual voter registration drives at every prison in Maine under a recently negotiated agreement with the state Department of Corrections.

The agreement sets Aug. 6 -- the anniversary of a landmark law that expanded voting rights -- as the annual kickoff for a week of registration events at state-run correctional facilities. A little more than a month ago, national NAACP President Benjamin Jealous visited the state to lobby for changes at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

The agreement will expand the civil rights group's efforts to bring more voter education to prisons in Maine, where state law allows every inmate to vote. The organization held drives at three of the six state correctional facilities last year.

''Clearly, it was not enough. This is the kind of piece that needs to have a repetitive, educational component,'' Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland NAACP chapter, said Thursday.

Associate Corrections Commissioner Denise Lord said the agreement will take effect this year.

Lord said the civil rights group will hold an annual drive on Aug. 6 at the state prison and bring the event to the other five state-run facilities over the next week or so.

The events will be held at no cost to the state, she said.

The date is the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed tactics designed to prevent blacks from registering to vote in many southern states.

The NAACP held a voter-education workshop at the state prison in May and registered 200 inmates. Prisoners also met representatives from the state's Democratic, Republican and Green Independent parties during the event.

Organizers considered the workshop a success, but were frustrated that it took so long to arrange.

The Portland NAACP said it spent more than two years trying to persuade prison officials to allow the chapter to hold a voter-education and registration drive there.

Ross said the back-and-forth over the registration drive was one of the reasons she requested a visit from Jealous, who met with prison officials last month. NAACP leaders hope to finalize a broader cooperation agreement with state prison officials next month, Ross said.

Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow felons to vote while incarcerated.

Inmates in Maine cast absentee ballots in the towns where they lived before prison. The state does not track the number of prisoners who vote, said Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn.

Those who are working to expand inmates' voting rights in other parts of the country say registration events like those sponsored by the NAACP are too often taken for granted by prison officials.

Allowing inmates to vote is only one step to keep them connected with society, said Charles Sullivan, co-founder of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, a Washington, D.C.-based reform organization.

''The second step -- the actual voting -- is very, very challenging,'' Sullivan said.

Prisoners in Washington, D.C., may vote as long as they are not serving felony sentences, but turnout figures for eligible inmates have historically been low, he said.

''It's hard to get voter education'' in correctional facilities, Sullivan said. ''I think we've got to make this a priority.''

Staff Writer Elbert Aull can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

eaull@pressherald.com

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