Hoping to boost voter turnout in a historic presidential election year, civil rights groups and other advocacy organizations are trying to get as many ex-felons as possible to cast ballots in November.
The groups, ranging from grassroots get-out-the-vote organizations to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are working to identify and register thousands of citizens with criminal records - many of them minorities - who may not know they are eligible to vote under often-complicated state voting laws.
Both in little-contested states such as Texas and in perennial presidential-election battlegrounds such as Ohio , activists are knocking on doors trying to find former prisoners and inform them of their voting rights, visiting state prisons and jails to speak with soon-to-be-released inmates and helping to register those who are interested and allowed to vote.
Looking beyond November, the American Civil Liberties Union is waging a broader campaign to persuade state legislatures to do away with so-called felony disenfranchisement laws, which keep an estimated 5.3 million Americans with felony convictions from the polls, including 2.1 million who no longer are in prison.
Only two states - Maine and Vermont - allow incarcerated felons to vote, according to a March analysis by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that opposes voting restrictions on ex-felons. Voting laws in the rest of the states vary widely for those no longer behind bars.
Eleven states restrict ex-offenders' voting rights even after their sentences are served: Kentucky and Virginia bar almost all ex-felons from going to the polls, unless they petition the governor to restore their rights, while nine states either ban some ex-felons from voting or have waiting periods before they can vote again. In addition, 35 states prevent parolees from voting, while 30 ban those on probation from casting ballots.
The ACLU this month filed a federal lawsuit claiming that elections administrators in Mississippi are ignoring a provision of the state constitution allowing some former felons to vote for president and vice president, even if they are banned from voting for other political offices. The organization is pursuing a separate legal challenge against Alabama .
"Once you get change in a couple of states, you can leverage that in other states," said Laleh Ispahani, senior policy counsel with the ACLU in New York.
Besides seeking changes to allow more ex-felons to vote, she said, the group also is pressing states to pass laws to guarantee that felons are notified of their voting rights before leaving prison. North Carolina approved such a law last year.
Still, efforts to restore voting rights to those convicted of felonies are controversial.
"If you're not willing to follow the law, then you can't claim a right to make the law for everyone else. And of course that's what you're doing when you vote," said Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Falls Church, Va.
The subject of ex-felon voting has been politically and racially explosive in the United States since the disputed 2000 presidential election. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush carried Florida by 537 votes amid claims of widespread voting irregularities, including allegations that minority voters were turned aside from the polls after being falsely identified as ex-felons.
Conservatives have charged that efforts to get former felons on the voter rolls are thinly disguised attempts to help Democrats at the polls and, this year, to help Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama win the White House. Studies have shown that former felons tend to lean Democratic.
Race also plays a major role in the debate. The NAACP and others claim that felony disenfranchisement laws unfairly target African-Americans, who are incarcerated at higher rates than other ethnic groups. But conservatives say the laws are racially neutral.
"There is a higher proportion of men in prison than (there are) women," Clegg said. "That doesn't make these laws sexually discriminatory."
The governors of the three states widely considered to have the toughest felony disenfranchisement laws in the nation - Florida , Kentucky and Virginia - recently relaxed some of their rules or simplified the process for restoring voting rights. That has led advocacy groups to launch new efforts to register ex-felons in those states, potentially bringing tens of thousands of new voters into the political process.
In Florida , where ex-felons previously had to go through an often lengthy state review process before their voting rights were restored, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist has pushed through changes that have made 112,000 former convicts eligible to cast ballots this year.
But only a fraction of those newly eligible to vote - about 9,000 - have registered so far, as many former convicts were unaware of the recent changes. To get the word out, the ACLU and a group called the Florida Rights Restoration Council this month announced a print ad campaign, running in English and Spanish in eight cities around the state, to get ex-felons to vote.
In Virginia , the only state other than Kentucky that still bans ex-felons from voting unless they apply for a reprieve from the governor, Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine promised earlier this year to speed up his review of applications. As a result, the ACLU, NAACP and others have converged on the state to urge ex-felons to apply. Already, Kaine has approved a third more applications than were granted in the 2004 election cycle, according to media reports.
But the expansion in ex-felon voters is stirring political heat. Like Florida , Virginia is considered a key battleground state, and Republican legislators there have complained that Kaine is trying to give a boost to Obama, who is said to have considered Kaine as a possible vice-presidential candidate.
In Kentucky , Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has eliminated state requirements that ex-felons write an essay, pay a $2 fee and obtain character references before applying to have their voting rights restored. Kentucky is not considered a battleground state, but advocacy groups there also are urging ex-felons to apply to vote and plan to push the Legislature next year to make sweeping changes to the law.
The Sentencing Project estimates that at least 16 states have eased voting restrictions on former felons since 1996. Other states, however, have toughened their rules. Voters in Massachusetts and Utah , for example, have stripped felons of their right to vote while behind bars, leaving Maine and Vermont as the only two states to allow those currently in prison to vote.
McCain and Obama have been noticeably absent from efforts to increase voter turnout by restoring the vote to ex-felons. Reflecting the sensitivity of the debate, political experts say the two candidates do not want to be seen vying for the votes of former convicts.
A development in the battleground state of Pennsylvania last month seemed to confirm that suspicion. After advertising on an Obama campaign office window in Pottstown , Pa. , that "felons can vote," campaign workers quickly removed the sign for fear it sent the wrong message, according to local media reports of the incident.