HELENA — If a Kalispell man has his way, Montana felons who have finished serving their time will have to wait a while before they can vote again.
What Im trying to do is make it a little more difficult for them to vote, Norman DeForrest said last week. DeForrest, a 63-year-old retiree, has made an initial request for a 2002 ballot initiative that would require felons to wait two to 12 years before making a request to be allowed to vote again.
DeForrests initiative will require an amendment to the Montana Constitution. The constitution now guarantees felons their full rights once they are no longer under state supervision.
They shouldnt just be automatically allowed to vote right out of prison, DeForrest said. They should have to work for it.
The Legislatures chief lawyer, Greg Petesch, said DeForrest has quite a ways to go to get his initiative approved by state officials before he can even begin gathering signatures. It will require rewriting and the approval of both the secretary of state and the attorney general.
Then DeForrest will have to petition voters to put it on the ballot. Because his proposal makes a change to the constitution, he needs the signatures of at least 10 percent of the states qualified electors — which was 39,724 for the 2000 election — including the signatures of at least 10 percent of the qualified electors in at least 40 of the 100 legislative districts.
DeForrest said he first started thinking about whether and when felons should be allowed to vote during the 2000 elections. He was visiting Florida when it became apparent that that states disputed votes would determine the outcome of the presidential race.
I saw how there was so much fraud, he said. There were so many felons that were voting (illegally).
States have different rules governing voting by convicted felons. Florida suspends felons right to vote until they have received either a pardon or a restoration of civil rights from the governor.
DeForrest said Floridas rules are too strict, and Montanas are too lenient. Eventually, he said, he would like to see a standard set of rules used by all states — preferably one similar to what hes proposing.
His proposed initiative has different tiers based on the seriousness of the crime, although, he said he does not yet know how the state legally determines which crimes would fall into which category.
The most violent offenders such as murderers and rapists would never be allowed to vote without a petition, and they would have to wait 12 years to file their petition. People who committed less serious felonies would have their rights to vote reinstated automatically after 12 years, or they could petition for reinstatement after eight years. And those convicted of the least serious felonies would be able to vote after eight years, or they could file a petition after two years.
DeForrest said he chose to start with Montana because it is a more conservative state that might be more receptive to the idea.
And, he said, there is no way to find out if there is any interest in changing the law without taking the idea to the people. And if the people of Montana are interested, he said, national leaders might take note.
Knowing politicians the way we do … theyre not going to stick their necks out unless they think people would be interested he said.
DeForrest joked about his chances of getting his idea through in Montana: I think most people are not felons, so thats something Ive got on my side. They many analyze it and say, That sounds like a good idea to me.