Kenny Matthews sits on the steps leading to the state Capitol building on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Douglas Soule photo.

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Kenny Matthews glanced behind him at the West Virginia Capitol building, which he had never visited before Saturday.

State law prevents him from voting on those who will fill its halls.

“It puts you in an air of frustration,” he said. His white shirt glowed beneath the afternoon sun. The digits “3485804” crossed the left side of his shirt: his offender identification number. “I can post stuff on Facebook, I can advocate and talk to people all I want to, but it seems to the broad spectrum of politicians, it’s the voters that matter. So without me being able to vote, do I really matter to them?”

Matthews, 37,  is one of more than 4,000 people in the state on parole following a felony conviction, according to a state spokesperson.

In West Virginia, advocates say education about voting rights is subpar for people while they’re imprisoned, as well as after they get out.  People with felony convictions can vote only after they’ve been released from behind bars and served any period of parole or probation, though they have to re-register. Those serving time for a misdemeanor conviction can vote, as can those charged with a felony who have not yet faced adjudication.

While some states have laws permanently disenfranchising people convicted of felonies, in 16 states, they receive their voting rights once they’re released, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 21 states, like West Virginia, the formerly incarcerated have their voting rights restored after they complete parole or probation.

In two states and the District of Columbia, those in prison — no matter the crime — never lose their voting rights.

Jeremiah Nelson, the re-entry council coordinator for the West Virginia Council of Churches, said he wants lawmakers to pass a bill during West Virginia’s next legislative session allowing people like Matthews, on parole or probation for a felony offense, to vote.

He called the current restriction “taxation without representation.”

“If they’re paying their taxes, if they’re working, if they’re contributing to society, it’s really discriminating to them,” he said. “You can do the things any other citizen can do, but you just can’t vote.”

Rev. Matthew J. Watts, pastor of Charleston’s Grace Bible Church and a civil rights activist, doesn’t believe someone’s right to vote should ever be forfeited.

“We’re taking away their right of citizenship in such a way that they may never really reconnect and be a citizen and really contribute to the republic,” he said. 

‘My vote … really matters.’

Matthews has been incarcerated three separate times. He spent his late teens and early twenties behind bars for felony robbery-based convictions in Illinois. He later moved to West Virginia, where felony drug convictions stripped him of his late twenties and early thirties. Most recently, Matthews pleaded guilty to two drug delivery charges in 2017. He was released on parole from Mount Olive Correctional Complex this spring.

Something changed for Matthews during his last time in prison.

“It took me standing in the prison yard in Mount Olive, looking around, and realizing I was comfortable there,” he said. 

“I had to work on and pinpoint what it was intrinsically about me that made criminal activity be my first response to stress,” he said. “Once I started dealing with trauma with my past and working through my own personal substance use disorder issues, and working on my recovery, I came to a point where I was like, ‘No longer is this type of life acceptable.’”

Kenny Matthews walks out of the state Capitol Complex after his first visit there on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Douglas Soule photo.

Before his release, Matthews spent time learning what he wanted to do to contribute to society. 

“Since my release, I have focused on being a source of the solution to a lot of problems rather than the cause of the problems,” he said. 

Matthews has since become certified as both a recovery coach and a recovery coach professional and has worked as an advocate on recovery and incarceration-based issues. He is one of the state leads for the Recovery Advocacy Project. He is seeking special approval to become a collegiate peer recovery coach despite his felony convictions. And Matthews was also recently hired part time to work on criminal justice reform for the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.

But still, state law keeps Matthews from the ballot box. Matthews said the earliest he can get off parole is this April. The latest is Feb. 22, 2032.

“For some of these counties, there’s a huge population of people that’s on parole,” he said. 

“Now you keep somebody quiet long enough,” he said, “eventually, they’re going to be frustrated. Eventually that frustration will turn to anger. And that anger can quickly spiral into a sense of hopelessness and despair.”

Matthews said he would “absolutely” vote this election if state law allowed. 

“When you are able to say that this complete group of people can’t vote, you really minimize the voting process,” he said. “My vote, my voice, really, really matters.”

Changes to the current law would require passage by the West Virginia Legislature. Mike Queen, spokesperson for West Virginia Secretary of Mac Warner, said while Warner follows the laws set by the Legislature, he would not support any change in the felony voting rights law. Natalie Tennant, the former secretary of state and the Democratic candidate for the position Warner now fills, said she believes those on parole or probation should be able to vote.

Eli Baumwell, policy director for the ACLU-WV, said he doesn’t know how active the organization will be in pursuing a policy change. 

“That will largely depend on what the makeup of the Legislature will look like after the election and where we think there will be an opportunity to make positive change,” he said.

Still, Baumwell made his view on the restrictions clear.

“Everyone should have the right to vote, no matter what, and it’s a tragedy we take away the right to vote for anyone,” he said. “It’s even worse that we don’t make it abundantly clear to people when that right is restored.”

Voter education efforts

Any rules restricting voting abilities for those with felony convictions or any lack of knowledge of voting rights for the formerly or currently incarcerated has a disproportionate effect on Black people and poor people in West Virginia, advocates say. 

According to Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation data from Tuesday, Black people account for 13% of West Virginia’s incarcerated population. They make up 3.6% of the state’s population, according to U.S. Census data.

Baumwell said the lack of knowledge of voting rights for those incarcerated or previously incarcerated is a problem. 

“I can tell you the vast majority of people that I run into who have finished serving a sentence or are currently serving a sentence, and maybe out on some sort of parole or probation, aren’t aware of that right,” he said. 

ACLU-WV and other organizations — Vote Together WV and the newly-created West Virginia Family of Convicted People — are leading an effort to call and text around 45,000 formerly incarcerated West Virginians to make sure they understand their voting rights. A spokesperson for ACLU-WV said 7,600 of those 45,000 are not registered to vote.

 And this isn’t the only education effort in the state. 

Katonya Hart, the executive committee board chairperson of the Call to Action for Racial Equality Coalition, with the support of other nonprofit organizations in the state, is working on videos aimed at educating formerly incarcerated people and their families on voting rights. 

“I don’t think this is something that people think about when they’re in the midst of a personal crisis, when they feel that they’re unjustly, or justly, being detained or locked up,” said Hart, who is also the third vice president of the West Virginia conference of the NAACP. “We just want to bring [voting rights] to the forefront and make it easy for them to think about that person’s right to vote and how it will help them in these procedures.” 

Nearly 38,000 people have been released from incarceration for felony convictions over the past decade in West Virginia, Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Lawrence Messina said. While about 4,000 are currently on parole, many of the rest should be eligible to vote, once they re-register.

Nelson, who works with people who were previously incarcerated to reintegrate them to society, makes sure to remind those people about their voting rights, since he’s seen a lack of knowledge in that area. 

Watts, the pastor, said some incorrectly believe that West Virginians who have felony convictions cannot vote. He said he heard this mistruth repeated by judges and other members of the criminal justice system. 

“The government that revokes the person’s citizenship right to vote has an obligation to educate them on how and when that right can be restored,” he said. “That should be a whole part of the rehabilitation process.”

Queen said the secretary of state’s office is working with advocacy organizations to eliminate “barriers to the ballot box by making sure that convicted felons understand what their rights are once they complete their sentence.” The office has published and distributes a brochure explaining those rights.

Oct. 13 is the last day to register to vote for the 2020 general election in West Virginia.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member and watchdog reporter. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief of The Daily Athenaeum,...