Convicted felons in Arizona have tough time getting voting rights back

(Source: WALB)
(Source: WALB)
Updated: May. 11, 2021 at 10:48 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - A person convicted of a felony loses a lot more than just their freedom.

Depending on the state they live in, some have trouble regaining their right to vote long after their release.

According to the Pima County Public Defender’s Office, Arizona’s voter restoration policy is one of the most restrictive in the country.

“A conviction for a felony suspends the rights of the person to vote unless they have been restored to civil rights. First-time offenders have rights restored upon completion of probation and payment of any fine or restitution. A person who has been convicted of two or more felonies may have civil rights restored by the judge who discharges him at the end of the term of probation or by applying to the court for restoration of rights."

(A.R.S. § 13-904 and 13-905)

For the 2018 midterm elections, 210,000 Arizonans will not be allowed to vote because of the state’s rules. That’s 4.5 percent of the state’s population.

But that doesn’t mean they will never be able to vote, it just takes a whole lot of work and an agreeable judge.

Manny Mejias, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison at the age of 15, knows just how hard it can be.

“I was 35 years old when I learned to drive," Mejias said. "I was 35 when I first held a cell phone.”

He’s been out of prison for more than 10 years, but still can’t vote.

According to state law, Mejias has to pay all his court fees, fines and restitution before he can even apply to have his civil rights restored.

“I paid my price, I did what was determined I needed to do,” he said. “Once that’s over, shouldn’t I get my rights back?”

Mejias has two issues standing in his way.

First, he had to pay restitution, which he believes will be done before the 2020 election.

“Paying your restitution or paying your fees is not high on the list when you get out,” he said. “You’re just trying to survive, you’re just trying to make it."

Most job opportunities for felons pay little more than minimum wage, which makes paying off debts a difficult task.

Even if Mejias gets the restitution paid, he will still need to face a judge who may, or may not, restore his rights.

“I think I’ve earned by right, that I deserve to have my right back,” he said. “I would simply ask (the judge) ‘what else do I need to do to be a citizen?’"

The fact it’s up to a judge is one of the flaws that makes getting the right to vote back so difficult, according to the Pima County Public Defender’s Office.

Equally unfair, according to public defender Joel Fineman, is all felons are treated the same.

A person convicted of marijuana possession is treated the same under the law as a murderer.

"Because that's the way the Arizona legislature wrote the law," Fineman said. "Which means anybody who is convicted of any felony, all of their civil rights are automatically revoked."

The public defender’s office said it will keep lobbying lawmakers to change the law.

It has been introduced before, but it has been rejected each time. Nationally, things are changing.

Virginia passed a law last year restoring the rights of convicted felons and it is on the ballot in Florida next month.

“Just because someone is a convicted felon, does not mean they can never vote again,” said Hannah Recht, a Tucson organizer for Restore Your Vote.

In August, the group launched its website to help convicted felons nationwide get their right to vote back. You can learn more HERE.

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