From the start of his jail stint on a felony conviction to his release in 2001, K.L. Brewer of Highland Park -- spoken word artist and political activist -- had been told by various authorities that he would not be allowed to vote once he got out.
On December 26, 2000, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled that state law prohibiting ex-felons from voting for five years after their release was unconstitutional. Brewer was released after that decision and says he still hasn't been able to vote, despite registering multiple times.
"I did the best I could rallying with my neighbors, making sure other people were registered to vote," he says. "I even worked with the NAACP to get people out to vote, but I never get my registration card."
Now he and other activists fear the state is about to make an imperfect electoral system even more prohibitive for ex-felons.
In June, 132 state representatives voted hell yea on an amendment to House Bill 1318 that would strip felons' voter privileges upon release for the remainder of their parole, probation or halfway-house sentence. Some parole and probation periods last for many years. The amendment would also make it a second-degree misdemeanor for any felon who even tried to vote while under state supervision. The bill is currently being considered by the state Senate.
"Why would you want to discourage people from becoming responsible citizens?" asks Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, and former Pittsburgh NAACP president. "Who is it going to hurt that convicted felons who want to vote once they leave are able to do that?"
Stevens told a Sept. 8 press conference that B-PEP's position is that "this proposed wholesale disenfranchisement of former felons will only serve politicians who either wish to prove to their constituents that they are tough on crime, or who believe that former felons will only be voting for a particular party."
State Rep. Joe Preston (D-East Liberty) was an original sponsor of HB 1318, which also addresses absentee and provisional ballot voting. But he voted against both the controversial amendment and the final passage of the entire bill because of this amendment. Four other Pittsburgh-area state reps voted for the amendment, including three Democrats - Thomas Petrone (Elliot), Harry Readshaw (Brentwood) and Ken Ruffing (West Mifflin).
"If you're found guilty of a crime and you're sentenced to whatever that might be, just because you're out early on parole doesn't mean you should be rewarded by having your voting privileges restored," says Readshaw.
Counters Preston: "It seems to me that if they can get a driver's license, they should be able to vote."