We Count: Untold voters stories

‘An untapped invisible army’

Millions of Americans have lost the right to vote because they were convicted of felonies, but change is taking hold around the country.

SAN ANTONIO – Steve Huerta spent big parts of his life on the streets of this city – first, during bouts of homelessness as a child and, later, as a drug dealer, selling cocaine, marijuana and LSD.

These days, when he’s on the streets, it’s often with voter registration forms in hand — part of a growing movement of people working to expand the political power of an often-ignored bloc of potential voters: the formerly incarcerated.

We Count: Untold Voters Stories

As America prepares to make its choice in the 2020 elections, CNN ventured into the lives of voters around the country who are often overlooked in the traditional narratives about politics. In this installment, we examine the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people.

More than 6 million Americans — about 2.5% of the nation’s voting-age population — could not cast ballots in 2016 because of felony convictions, according to the most recent estimate by The Sentencing Project, a research group that advocates for improvements to the criminal justice system.

There’s no national database of all the ex-felons who have completed the terms of their sentences and had their voting rights restored, but Christopher Uggen, a University of Minnesota sociologist who studies the issue, estimates that as many as 15 million people who have been convicted of felonies now have regained the right to vote.

Steve Huerta leads a campaign to inform former felons of their right to vote in the state of Texas.

“It’s an untapped invisible army,” Huerta says of the formerly incarcerated. “If we can wake it up, its footprint could shake America.”

Around the country, change is taking hold as formerly incarcerated people such as Huerta and their allies agitate for expanded rights and rack up wins:

  • In 2019, Louisiana restored voting rights for some 36,000 people who had completed their sentences for felony convictions and undergone five-year waiting periods.
  • In Nevada, a law signed last May automatically restores voting rights as soon as someone with a felony conviction is released from prison, immediately affecting about 77,000 people.
  • Under a law signed last April by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, people convicted of first-time felonies in Arizona no longer are required to pay outstanding fines to have their voting rights restored.
  • In December, New Jersey joined a number of other states in allowing people convicted of felony offenses to vote while on parole or probation.
  • That same month, the newly elected governor of Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear, reinstated voting rights for roughly 140,000 former felons convicted of nonviolent crimes.

And in a move with the biggest potential impact on the nation’s electoral politics, voters in the key battleground state of Florida passed a referendum in 2018 to restore voting rights to about 1.4 million people who had completed their sentences for felonies. Advocates said it marked the largest expansion of voting rights in the country since 1971, when the US lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

Florida’s expansion, however, has become tied up in legal battles – after the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a new law requiring former felons to first pay outstanding fines and fees tied to their convictions. A federal appellate court recently upheld their right to vote without paying the fees, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has appealed the ruling.

A bin filled with handcuffs is seen at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.

Civics lessons

A patchwork of state laws governs who can and cannot vote following felony convictions.

In two states, Maine and Vermont, felons never lose voting rights – even when they are behind bars. In 17 states and Washington, DC, those rights are automatically restored after felons are released, according to the Sentencing Project.

For decades, Texas has allowed ex-offenders to vote once they have completed both their sentences and all the terms of their supervised release, such as parole. But some activists and law-enforcement officials say many ex-offenders in Texas aren’t aware of those rights.

Javier Salazar says he heard a common refrain in 2016 as he went door to door in his campaign for Bexar County sheriff: “ ‘ I can’t vote for you. I’ve been to prison.’ ”

Sheriff Javier Salazar is seen inside his office at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.

“I heard that often enough to where I thought to myself, ‘This is by design. They are trying to keep a segment of the population from realizing they’ve got rights afforded to them.’ “

So after he became sheriff in 2017, Salazar instituted a “civics in jail” program, run by two nonprofits – Texas Organizing Project and MOVE Texas – that explains how the federal, state and local governments work, along with inmates’ voting rights. Many of the roughly 4,000 men and women in Salazar’s jail on any given day still are awaiting trial, so they have not lost their right to vote.

In all, more than 400 people have registered to vote through the program in the Bexar County Adult Detention facility so far, says MOVE Texas spokesman Charlie Bonner.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon last fall, 30 men wearing bright orange prison scrubs fill a seventh-floor classroom that does double duty as the jail’s chapel. A full-size painting of Jesus set against a blue and pink background looks over the group as they learn about the difference between primary and general elections and view slides detailing the myriad of elected officials in San Antonio, larger Bexar County and Texas.

Inmates fill out voter registration forms during a civics class at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.
An inmate looks over a voter registration form.

The inmates crack the occasional joke or pose provocative questions about the congressional impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and the Electoral College. (The trainers studiously steer clear of controversy or offering their opinions about politics.)

But when the registration forms are passed out, 17 of the men attending the class register to vote. They are encouraged to use the jail as their mailing address, given that some may still be there when the next election occurs. If so, they can vote by mail.

Texas is lobbying county officials to establish polling places inside the jail, Bonner says.

Across the street at the annex that houses female inmates, 26-year-old Dominique Thetford, who said she was in jail on a meth possession charge, sat in the front row during the facility’s own civics class, scribbling notes about elections on her left palm. At the end of the class, she registered to vote.

Thetford said she had never voted before and didn’t realize that she could before she entered the classroom. “I want to be able to advocate for people like us,” the mother of four said.

Dominique Thetford displays the notes she took on her hand during a civics class at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.

Big potential voting bloc

These voters have the numbers to sway the outcomes of close elections.

In the presidential swing state of Florida, for instance, DeSantis won the governor’s contest by fewer than 33,000 votes in 2018.

In traditionally red Texas, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz won his seat by 16 percentage points in 2012. Six years later, his margin of victory had shrunk to less than 3 percentage points, or 214,921 votes.

But Uggen said it’s hard to project how many of the formerly incarcerated who have had their voting rights restored actually will cast ballots. Danielle Lang, who co-directs the voting rights and redistricting project at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, says many are fearful of exercising that right – even as a growing number of states move to ease restrictions.

A group of inmates laugh while filling out voter registration forms during a civics class at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.

Her office, she says, “constantly” fields calls from people who were formerly incarcerated and want to triple-check the voting laws in their states. “They are afraid of doing the wrong thing,” Lang says. “These are folks who were involved in the criminal justice system. They don’t want to go back there.

A high-profile case in Texas underscores the stakes.

Crystal Mason, a Texas mother of three, is appealing her sentence of five years in prison for voting illegally in the 2016 election. Mason has argued that she did not know that her status as a felon on supervised release for tax fraud made her ineligible to vote in Texas.

Her vote was never counted because she only filled out a provisional ballot that election officials ultimately rejected.

Officials in Fort Worth, Texas, who prosecuted Mason said the charges were appropriate.

Crystal Mason was convicted for illegal voting and sentenced to five years in prison. Credit: Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS/Getty Images

“Mason received both written and verbal notification of her ineligibility to vote at the time of her supervised release, and written notice at the time she voted,” Sam Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement. “The judge found beyond a reasonable doubt from the evidence that she knew she wasn’t eligible and voted anyway.”

But critics of Mason’s prosecution say it could have a chilling effect, deterring former felons from trying to vote, even if they have the right to do so.

In Bexar County, home to San Antonio, Huerta estimates that more than 600,000 of the county’s nearly 2 million residents are what he calls “justice-impacted,” ranging from people who have served prison time for felonies to those charged with misdemeanors. Only about 157,000 of them are registered to vote, he said, and only a fraction of those turn out on Election Day.

A voter registration form is seen during a civics class taught at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.

From drug dealing to activism

Huerta serves as the Texas-based activist with All of Us or None, a national group that advocates for those currently and formerly in prison and their families. He and his chief organizer and longtime friend, Tommy Acosta, sit at the center of a cluster of community groups that work to prevent violence and help ex-offenders and their families. Their mission: Give voice to the formerly incarcerated.

“We’ve got to vote to change the system,” Acosta, 50, says. “The system isn’t going to change for us.”

Their work is rooted in personal experience.

As an 11-year-old, Acosta joined a gang in Victoria Courts, a now-demolished public housing project in downtown San Antonio where he grew up. In adulthood, he became a drug dealer with more than three dozen people – including Huerta – dealing on his behalf.

Over the years, Acosta was picked up for shoplifting and burglary before entering federal prison for counterfeiting money.

Tommy Acosta works with fellow activist Steve Huerta to inform former felons of the their right to vote in the state of Texas.
Acosta drinks coffee at his office in San Antonio.

Huerta had a rough childhood, too. His mother died when he was a toddler. His father struggled to raise eight kids. Huerta says he spent part of his youth in a Catholic home for orphaned and neglected children, but left at 12, hopscotching among relatives’ homes and the streets of San Antonio.

Some nights, he says, he slept in the cemetery beside his mother.

“Her grave was kind of like my bedside,” Huerta says, his eyes filling with tears at the memory. “That’s where a little boy found comfort.”

Huerta spent three months in prison in 2001 in connection with cocaine possession.

Huerta poses for a portrait.

Huerta said he turned to activism as an answer to the struggles he and other ex-offenders face. When he got out of jail, he worked as a day laborer – digging ditches, hauling trash, picking up rocks.

Each day, sharing their lunches, he says, he and the other workers complained about their troubles – unpaid rent and overdue child support payments. “And I was mad. I said, ‘Jesus, what the hell is going on? … Let's do something about this.’ "

He describes an “invisible box” that surrounds the formerly incarcerated as their criminal records lock them out of meaningful jobs and decent housing.

“We're trying to get rid of that box,” he says. “To remove that box that bans our existence. The box that promotes poverty.”

Operating out of a minuscule 16-foot by 12-foot office on San Antonio’s Westside, Huerta, 51, spends his days helping his neighbors navigate the criminal justice system. He offers advice on how to talk to probation officers and social workers. And he buries himself in spreadsheets, identifying all the households around the city where someone has served time, as he works to register new voters and encourage those with criminal backgrounds – and their relatives – to turn out on Election Day. (His data-analysis skills are self-taught. “Thank God for YouTube university,” he says with a laugh.)

Huerta walks through the streets of San Antonio.

While they make their living in other ways – Huerta as a political consultant and Acosta from driving trucks – both joined the swarm of activists who descended on Florida in 2018 to knock on doors and encourage the state’s voters to pass the referendum restoring felony voting rights.

On a weekday morning last November, Huerta and his fellow volunteers were brainstorming a new project: persuading Texas lawmakers to ease voting restrictions further to allow the formerly incarcerated to cast ballots while still on parole. They acknowledge it will be a steep climb to change the law. A recent effort in the state legislature never got out of committee.

“But some of us are living eight, 10 years on parole in communities that we have no say in, and yet I’m taxed on my work dollars. I’m taxed at the store,” Huerta says. “That’s taxation without representation.”

“Anyone who doesn’t have the right to vote is not a complete citizen.”

Female inmates fill out a voter registration form during a civics class at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.


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