Novlette Haughton woke up before the sun started rising over Baltimore.
She put on jeans and a beige T-shirt. Tattoos of her sons' names peeked out from under her sleeves as she collected her phone and Bluetooth headset. It was almost time for the 39-year-old to catch the bus for her hour-long trek across town for work.
Tuesday is payday at a business neighboring Café Lorraine, the breakfast and lunch spot she manages. That means a rush of customers treating themselves to omelets, burgers, and homemade chili. As usual, she braced herself for a busy day behind the yellow-accented counter. "Café Lorraine: Cozy Place. Affordable + Delicious," a sign inside boasts.
But this Tuesday was different. For the first time in her life, Haughton was going to engage in one of the most fundamental aspects of American democracy: voting. Haughton spent a third of her life in prison. Despite having done her time, she wasn't able to cast a ballot after her release because she was a convicted felon on parole. But all that changed this year.
“I’m excited,” she said as she rode back across the city during the mid-morning lull in business, so she could cast a ballot at her neighborhood polling place. "Never been before, so it holds a lot of anxiety, nervousness, newness, and excitement."
Haughton is one of an estimated 40,000 felony offenders on probation or parole who won back the right to vote in the state of Maryland just weeks ahead of the state’s April 26 primary election this year. She registered to vote using a link she found on Facebook with her sister's help.
“It’s allowing me to get one step closer to feeling normal,” Houghton said. “I pay taxes, now I’m allowed to vote, next I’m going to be a homeowner. Now that I’m able to [vote], I feel that I’m contributing.”
The change in Maryland — delivered when state legislators rallied to override a veto by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — is one of several major victories scored recently by advocates fighting to end voter disenfranchisement based on criminal records. Virginia followed suit in late April, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a sweeping executive order restoring the right to vote for an estimated 200,000 people. The restrictions there had been in place for 150 years.
But the battle is far from over. An estimated 5.85 million people nationwide were barred from voting because of criminal records as of the start of 2016, according to The Sentencing Project. The group's executive director estimates that 10% of those ex-offenders — more than 500,000 — are women. Eleven states allow prohibitions on voting even after completion of probation or parole. Just two — Vermont and Maine — allow voting while incarcerated on felony charges.
“It’s fundamentally a question of democracy,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told Refinery29. “When we talk about who gets to participate in our democracy, it’s a messy process, but fundamentally, everyone has the right to vote, to engage. While people are going to be punished for the crimes they are convicted of, we don’t typically take away someone’s fundamental rights of citizenship.”
Haughton went to prison when she was 21, sentenced to 50 years for second-degree murder and gun charges. She grew up with no shortage of opportunities, she said, attending private school and going on exciting trips, but family problems pushed her away from her home in Brooklyn and toward a series of bad choices. She started selling drugs, traveling up and down the I-95 corridor that runs through New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Then a man was killed in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. Haughton was implicated and convicted of the crime, which she maintains she didn’t commit.
For the next 13 years, Houghton watched the world change from inside the walls of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, the Jessup facility where she said 144 female inmates were crammed into a unit with just 27 windows. The U.S. invaded Iraq. Her sons grew into young men. Hit shows, like The Office and Breaking Bad, premiered — and wrapped. America elected its first Black president, and then re-elected him to a second term.
Then, in 2014, a new attorney successfully petitioned for Haughton's sentence to be modified. She was released in Baltimore, thousands of miles from her sons, who had since moved to Florida with their dad. She had nowhere to live, no job, no credit. And she was still relegated to the sidelines of democracy. It left her feeling “less than human.”
“You told me I was a returning citizen,” she lamented, frustration in her typically bubbly voice. “I should be treated with the same equality as any other citizen. But that wasn’t the case.”
People who are convicted of serious crimes have long been denied equal access to voting booths. The concept of disenfranchisement based on criminal records dates back to ancient Greece, as the National Conference of State Legislatures notes.
The practice began in what is now America after English colonists brought to the continent parts of a crime-and-punishment approach called "civil death," which continued in some places after the American Revolution, NCSL explains. But a number of states enacted felony disenfranchisement laws following the Civil War. Those policies were “clearly designed” to keep Black voters from the polls, according to Susan Greenbaum, a professor emerita at the University of South Florida.
“The way the criminal justice system operated in the South after the Civil War was a self-conscious re-enslavement process,” Greenbaum told Refinery29. “There were vastly disparate rules for the kind of crimes they would charge Black people with versus white people.”
The laws have continued to disproportionately affect the Black community. Today, 1 in 13 Black Americans of voting age have lost the right to cast a ballot because of a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project. The rate for white Americans is 1 in 56.
“It is a really difficult legacy, and it has huge effects,” Greenbaum said.
Supporters of keeping restrictions in place for convicted felons say the policy isn’t about race — it’s about upholding consequences for breaking the law.
"These are people who have destroyed other people's lives," Maryland Delegate Chris West, a Republican who opposed the change in law there, said at the time of the debate. “There are certainly things that facilitate re-entry into society. Voting is not one of them. It's something that takes place on one day once every two years. This is something that should be a reward."
But advocates say restoring the right to vote for people like Houghton is an important part of the re-entry process for ex-offenders. Some research has shown that voting can decrease recidivism rates. And voting can give residents in historically disadvantaged areas, including poor and minority communities, more political power to demand that local, state, and federal officials address the issues impacting their lives.
“Voting gives me the ability to decide how money is spent in my city and state,” Nicole Hanson, an ex-offender who advocated for the change in law in Maryland, told Refinery29. “Voting gives you the ability to hire and fire individuals who are not doing their job.”
Hanson, 33, served a short sentence after she was convicted of felony theft — and was devastated when she missed out on the opportunity to bring her daughter to the polls to vote for Barack Obama in 2012.
Now, she’s hoping to make a difference by working to get other ex-offenders involved in pushing for change through politics, including better support for the offender community and police reform in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.
“We have very strong advocates who are in Annapolis every day educating legislators, rallying the people, emailing, phone-banking, and doing whatever it takes to get the message out,” she said. “As long as we have individuals like that, groups like that, things will change.”
In places like Baltimore, where an estimated 20,000 residents on probation or parole couldn’t vote because of their past convictions, it can have a big impact.
“They could actually, as a voting bloc, be one of the single largest voting blocs in the city forcing change around issues important to them,” DeRay Mckesson, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist who ran unsuccessfully for mayor, told Refinery29 ahead of the primary.
But getting former felons registered and to the polls isn’t easy, even once laws have been updated. Efforts like the Hip Hop Caucus’ Respect My Vote! campaign are working across the country to spread awareness of the various laws. The group, which enlists rappers like 2 Chainz and Charlamagne as spokespeople, registered more than 30,000 people in 2008. Half the battle, they said, is persuading people to put their trust in politics again.
“We have to restore faith in the system,” said Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., who leads the campaign. “I think there’s a lot of people who think the system is completely broken.”
In Baltimore, the local get-out-the-felon-vote effort was led in part by Maryland Communities United. For weeks, the nonprofit set up voter registration tables at busy intersections, including the Penn North Light Rail stop, adding more than 1,000 voters to the polls. They created a platform of political demands from the ex-offender community, and staged a forum where newly registered voters could ask questions of candidates for mayor. Like Houghton, many of the ex-offenders in attendance expressed frustration about the difficulties they faced in finding housing and jobs post-release.
“What are we going to do about housing for ex-offenders that come out of prison and have nowhere to go?" one man asked.
One goal of that forum was to energize those new voters to actually cast a ballot, according to Perry Hopkins, a Communities United field organizer. Hopkins said he witnessed the change that came with casting a ballot firsthand when he visited polling sites in the communities he had been working with. He saw "a different person coming out after having made their vote" than had gone in.
And he could relate. Hopkins, a youthful 55, voted for the first time in the primary election, too.
“When I went in there and filled out that paper, I felt completely, completely vindicated,” he said. “It was like somebody stole my bike and I got it back again and now I can ride it. That’s what it felt like.”
Over decades of run-ins with the law, Hopkins was barred from city, state, and national elections.
“Due to my past, some mistakes that I made, some bad choices that I made, I’ve been punished,” he said. “But me going in there, feeling like everybody else, knowing that I did something to participate in the process that’s going to matter, not only for my life, but in this community, was empowering. I felt like the scales are closer to being leveled again in my life as a citizen.”
Houghton also feels like voting is the latest step in her journey toward “normalcy.” After running into initial struggles finding a job, she found work at Café Lorraine through a roundtable run by Alternative Directions, a re-entry support program she worked with post-release. She’s now been at the café for several months, earning the manager’s trust to open and close. She’s in the process of completing an associate degree, with plans to pursue a bachelor's in criminal justice. She said she just got a scholarship to help pay for books and other expenses next year.
As she walked outside the red brick church where she was registered to vote, Haughton burst into smiles and laughter. She peeled off the back of her “I Voted” sticker and stuck it on her shirt. She had to get back to the café before the midday rush, but she planned to call her son during her lunch break to tell him what she’d done.
“I feel accomplished,” she said. “I am going to vote every opportunity I get. November 2016 is my next time voting.”