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DECISION 2020: Oklahoma church organization helps register felons eligible to vote

Posted at 10:06 PM, Oct 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-17 23:14:54-04

Most people think felons lose their right to vote after conviction. That is true for some, but in Oklahoma the right is still theirs.

It is not as cut and dry as that, though, and a statewide church organization is doing its part to clear up the confusion.

"It's a large number of people and the majority of them just don't know," Donna Thompson, the director of Oklahoma Baptist State Convention's Prison Ministry, said.

Thompson made it her mission to let convicted felons know when they are eligible to vote in local, state, and national elections.

Oklahoma is one of 21 states that allow its residents with a felony to vote once they serve out their full prison sentence.

"You have to wait the amount of time of the original sentence which is court-ordered mandated days," Thompson said.

In August 2019, Governor Kevin Stitt signed legislation, spearheaded by Oklahoma State Rep. Regina Goodwin, to simplify the felon voter status section of the state's registration form.

It reads, "a person convicted of a felony may register to vote when he or she has fully served his or her sentence of court-mandated calendar days, including any term of incarceration, parole, or supervision being fully served, or a period of probation completed as ordered by any court."

Thompson emphasizes "court-mandated calendar days" to avoid confusion.

"If the judge gives you 10 years, you have to wait 10 years in calendar days," Thompson said.

She said confusion is commonplace. Felons are often discharged before their full prison sentence by the Department of Corrections for accruing credited time.

For instance, if an inmate is incarcerated for only four years of a seven-year sentence, they have to wait out those final three years before they can vote.

Katherine Burch got caught in this conundrum.

"I was like, 'Wow. I have to pay taxes, but I can't choose who represents me,'" Burch said.

Burch served four felony convictions and was discharged in 2011, but did not get her voter registration card until last year.

"The feeling is exhilarating," Burch said. "When you're incarcerated you get all your stuff taken. It's a feeling of starting to get your stuff back and having your rightful place in society."

Burch is now a volunteer for OBSC's Prison Ministry. She helps fellow felons register to vote.

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