America Tonight

2016: Meet the voters candidates are leaving behind

One in 10 Floridians can't vote. In Iowa, Muslims are threatened. As the 2016 race heats up, we ask "forgotten" voters across the U.S. what they need from a president — and why candidates should pay attention.


Left Behind: Florida’s former felons struggle to win back civil rights

TALLAHASSEE, Florida – At the state capitol, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency is seated high above several dozen petitioners.

On this day in December 2015, one of the most cherished rights in American democracy is at stake: The right to vote.

In most other states, the petitioners wouldn’t need to appear before a board at all. Former felons in most states — save those who have committed the most serious crimes — have their civil rights automatically restored after the completion of their criminal sentences. But across the country, some 5.85 million voters have lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction. One quarter — or 1.5 million — are in Florida.

Florida joins only Kentucky and Iowa in requiring former felons to appear before a board to win back their civil rights,  a process that can take years — if it happens at all. 

As of early 2015, many states had started to ease voting restrictions for former felons; some, like Florida, still require an appeals process.
The Sentencing Project

In Florida, voting rights can only be restored by the state’s Clemency Board, overseen by Gov. Rick Scott. A petitioner must also get the vote of two of the three other clemency board commissioners: Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Adam Putnam.

Only a few hundred former felons succeed each year.

“This is a court of mercy. If you walk up and say, ‘I deserve something,’ that’s not how this works,” Scott said at the board’s September hearing. “It’s very difficult to sit in this position if there’s no remorse shown. If there’s no remorse shown, it’s very difficult to grant any kind of clemency.”

25 percent of all disenfranchised felons live in Florida.

But Florida State Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Democrat representing Palm Beach County, says clemency is part of the "basic human rights that we've established in this country .... a part of the fabric of who we are."

“This really is not a Democrat or Republican issue,” Clemens said. “It's a simple fairness issue and it's an American issue. We founded our government on the basic principle of one person, one vote, and even though in the past obviously we've discriminated, we like to believe that we don't do that today.”

A day in clemency court

Each of the 42 petitioners at the December hearing had to go through a rigorous investigation by state officials — who then submitted their recommendations to the clemency board — to reach this point.

Over the course of several hours, the petitioners approach the panel one by one to answer for past misdeeds, and to prove that they have been law-abiding citizens since completing their criminal sentences. 

In this screen grab from the Florida Channel, petitioners appear before the Florida Board of Executive Clemency.
The Florida Channel

Some of the petitioners face a relatively smooth process. The governor asks a few questions, including whether the petitioner admits to the acts in his or her past.

For other former felons, the hearing is like the scene in Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law,” where a man struggles in vain to find the words to open a gate — a gate built exclusively for him.

The reasons for the rejection are usually hidden in the state investigators’ report, which aren't discussed at the hearing. The Board often poses questions that have seemingly little to do with voting rights, about traffic stops, speeding tickets, the status of children and the petitioner’s drinking habits. One man is rejected because Scott says he feels the man needs more time to pass before he's ready to vote again. Another is dismissed because he admits to occasional private marijuana use, still a criminal offense in Florida.  

One of those selected for December’s hearing was Elnora Hampton, a 45-year-old patient care assistant with four sons. She pleaded guilty to an assault charge in 1997 and served six months in county jail, followed by probation that ended in 2000. She applied for a restoration of her civil rights in 2003, the three years required after the completion of her sentence.

“I feel like I've given the time that [the state] asked from me,” Hampton told America Tonight. “I've walked in the right footsteps to be able to abide by the law … I have done all the things that [they’ve] asked me to do: been an abiding citizen, obeying the law, so I feel like I should have my rights restored.”

Elnora Hampton's probation ended in 2000, but her first chance to plead for the restoration of her voting rights was in 2015.
America Tonight

On paper, Hampton seems like she has a good chance. That doesn’t make the wait easier. Hampton said she couldn’t sleep the night before the hearing. She didn’t even tell her children about the hearing for fear it might not go her way.

The loss of civil rights has consequences far beyond voting. It bars former felons from serving in public office or sitting on a jury. In Hampton’s case, it also has limited her aspiration to attend nursing school, despite her 12 years serving as a patient care assistant.

“When you’re convicted, they take your voting rights, the jury rights," she said. But "sitting on a board, but some of your occupational licenses, it hinders those also."

A long wait

Hampton and the other felons granted a hearing in December are just some of thousands more who have waiting for years to appear before the Clemency Board.

Many, like Chris Poole, were caught up in the drug trade that swept across South Florida in the 1980s and 1990s. Back in 1992, Poole completed a four-year prison term on a federal drug charge. 

“I broke the law, and I accepted the responsibility for that. But I didn't think I was going to have to serve this sentence for the rest of my life,” Poole said. “Like the old saying … ‘You do the crime, you do the time.’ I did the time. But I'm still doing the time. So I've been actually incarcerated since 1987.”

In 1992, Chris Poole completed a four-year prison term for federal drug charge. He's still waiting to apply for clemency.
America Tonight

In 2008, he petitioned the state to win back his voting rights, but in a July 2014 letter, the Florida Commission on Offender Review said that Poole’s case wasn’t actively being investigated.

“Currently, there are many cases ahead of this case, so it will still take some time before his investigation is initiated – possibly a couple of years,” Florida’s Office of Clemency Investigations wrote in its letter to Poole.

Poole says he understands there are plenty of others waiting, like him, for a chance to prove they’ve turned themselves around.

But "my gosh, since 2008, they received my paperwork and they haven't even looked at it yet,” Poole said. “It's always, ‘We'll get in touch with you.’ That's it. That's the last you hear of them. And if you do call back six months, a year later, it’s ‘We're still checking into that.’”

What's in a vote?

The right to vote in Florida becomes even more important when considering the state’s history of close elections. The most memorable came with the 2000 presidential race, when 537 votes separated George W. Bush and Al Gore from the White House.

In this context, the disenfranchisement of 10 percent of Florida’s voting population, and nearly one-quarter of voting age African-Americans, could have a dramatic impact on who becomes the next president in November.

State Sen. Clemens, who represents the same county where a flawed ballot led to epic voting problems during the 2000 Presidential election, said the current clemency rules reflect a history of racial disenfranchisement in Florida that dates back to the Jim Crow era.

“It's clearly an effort in my mind to make it more difficult for African Americans to have a say in their own governance,” Clemens said.

In Clemens' mind, there's also no reason to restrict the rights of the many nonviolent felons who go through the system. 

"If you get caught with a bag of weed or were selling some drugs when you were young, and maybe made a mistake, that shouldn't prevent you from spending the rest of your life paying taxes but not being able to have any say in how those taxes are spent," he said. "That's really not what America is all about.”

Some states have tried to loosen restrictions on felons’ voting rights. In Virginia, the two most recent governors, Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, have taken steps to make the restoration of voting rights more of an automatic process.

In February, the Maryland legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to allow felons on probation or parole to vote in November's election. 

In other states, the issue has become a pendulum that swings between automatic restoration or not, depending on which political party is in power. 

For instance, in Kentucky, outgoing Gov. Steven Beshear (D) issued an executive order in late November to restore the voting rights of about 140,000 non-violent ex-offenders who had completed their sentences.

But only weeks later, the new governor of Kentucky, Republican Matt Bevin, suspended that order, saying the matter needed to be handled through legislative, not executive, action.

In Florida, former Gov. Charlie Crist, who took office as a Republican and later switched parties, made rights restoration an automatic process in 2007, granting clemency to about 150,000 former felons.

But those changes were reversed, too, after Scott’s administration tightened the process in 2011, again requiring felons to appear before the Clemency Board. 

Alex Newman/Al Jazeera America

“Unfortunately, the way our [state] constitution works, it also allows for a governor who maybe isn't so charitable to use the system to keep people from having their rights restored,” Clemens said.

Clemens has proposed a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of non-violent felons, but that measure has failed to gain any traction in the Republican-dominated legislature in Tallahassee.

“Without a constitutional amendment, or without a governor who believes in restoring the rights of people who have served their time and paid their debt to society, we're at the whim of a political process that was designed to be discriminatory,” Clemens said, adding that the policy disproportionately excludes African American voters, who tend to vote democratic. 

At the December hearing, America Tonight requested interviews with the governor and members of the clemency board about the process, but their representatives said each of the members didn’t have time to speak with us.

Toward the end of the hearing, Hampton was called to stand before the Clemency Board. After introducing herself, Hampton acknowledged to the mistake she had made in 1997.

“I admit my guilt and my wrongdoing,” she told the board. “As I tell my kids, everybody makes mistakes, and you have to learn from your mistakes. I learnt from my mistakes and from that day forward I turned my life around.”

After pressing her about her confession, and asking about the age of her children, Scott moved for a restoration of civil rights. The other members of the board agreed.

After waiting 15 years, Hampton had finally regained full citizenship. This November, she will bring her 7-year-old son into the voting booth with her as she casts her first vote.

“I’m going straight home and to tell them mom has her rights back to vote. I’m pretty sure they are going to be ready for this first adventure,” she said outside the hearing room in December. “I don’t know the reason that it took this long … Maybe they don’t have enough people working the system, maybe it was just paperwork ... but even if it took this long to get me here, I got it.”

Christof Putzel, George Lerner | Editing by Erica R. Hendry


In 2016 elections, Iowa Muslims fear they’ll be left behind

Hassan Igram’s graphics company began in the back of his grandfather’s grocery store. Today it employs more than 100 people. It’s the kind of immigrant success story that has played out in America countless times. Igram’s family happens to be from Syria, which has made him and other Muslims in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, targets this campaign season — despite having settled in this city for more than a century. In this America Tonight excerpt, Joie Chen and David Martin talk to Muslims in Iowa who say they’re being left behind by the 2016 campaigns.


Left Behind: Families without paid leave are struggling

At 24 weeks into her pregnancy, Nancy Glynn sat in a New Hampshire hospital room, preparing to be induced for labor. The doctors explained there were complications. The options were limited; she could deliver now, or risk having a stillborn.

“So obviously, you know, life is better for a chance than not at all,” she said.

The baby, Sawyer, was born on June 27, 2015. He lived for about an hour.

Nancy Glynn and her husband hold her son Sawyer last June. He died about an hour after he was born.
Nancy Glynn

After Sawyer’s passing, Glynn withdrew into what she described as an agonizing combination of heartbreak and loss. She could barely leave the house, let alone go back to her job as a waitress. She was recovering from surgery, trying to take care of her family, attempting to grieve, and quickly, figuring out how to make ends meet while she was off the job. Life seemed to catch up to her before she was ready.

“We were getting our electricity shut off on us,” Glynn said. “We had gone through all of our savings ... and my husband finally looked at me and said, ‘We can't do this anymore.’ If we want to continue to do this and not lose a vehicle, not lose the apartment and to be able to live a little bit more comfortably, then I needed to go back to work.”

So, after eight weeks off, Glynn returned to the job. 

“The fact that she had no choice but to go back to work where she was really grieving, it's just not the way,” said Christina D’Allessandro, the New Hampshire director of the advocacy group MomsRising. But the financial pressure that comes with an absence of paid leave is a common American experience, D’Allessandro said.  

The United States is the only developed country in the world without a mandated paid leave policy. It’s an issue that’s been widely documented for years. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows certain employees — about 60 percent of those in the U.S. — to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, it does not guarantee paid leave. President Barack Obama took several actions last year to give paid leave to federal employees and contractors, but the rules don't apply to non-government workers. Only about 13 percent of Americans have access to some sort of paid family leave policy through their employers.

The numbers are sobering, D’Allessandro says, but she thinks this is the year the tides may be turning.

It’s a historic campaign season for the issue of paid leave. Paid leave is on the agenda for candidates on both sides of the aisle, not only as a talking point but as a platform for new policy.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed three months of paid leave. The plan — which he and a group of Democrats have formally introduced in the FAMILY Act — would be funded through a federal payroll tax on workers of an estimated $1.61 a week. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s plan involves a similar 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, but relies on a tax increase on the wealthy to support the policy.

In what may be the most surprising proposal, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has proposed a plan that would incentivize companies to create their own paid leave policies through a series of tax credits for those who offer between four and 12 weeks of paid leave. Rubio continues to be the only Republican candidate with any policy change on paid leave, albeit not a federally mandated plan. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have come out against new policy.

“I think the Presidential race is absolutely indicative that these kind of policies are catching more and more attention at a national level,” D’Allessandro said.

The shift reflects growing support for paid family leave across the country. Eighty-one percent of likely 2016 voters think policies like paid family leave are a good idea, according to a poll by the pro-leave advocacy group Make it Work.

Alex Newman/ Al Jazeera America

Three states – California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey – have already implemented their own paid family leave programs. The District of Columbia put forth a landmark plan to give workers 16 weeks of paid family leave. It’s the most generous proposal in the country, with an expected decision later this year.

For many mothers like Alyson Fitzpatrick, it’s a conversation that’s long overdue. But she says it isn’t black and white.

“I don't think we can say today that paid family leave has to be federally mandated and it's going to raise our taxes, and that's the only path,” she said. “I think the biggest takeaway is there are millions of Americans who are struggling by the simple fact of having kids. And in a civilized country, that's wrong.”

When Fitzpatrick’s first child was born four years ago, she had just taken a step forward in her career, managing a four-diamond restaurant, one of the highest ratings awarded by AAA, in New Hampshire. But she could only take four weeks off — without pay.

“If you live paycheck to paycheck, you take four weeks out of that ... and how long does it take to come back from that?” she said. “I'm a college educated person, I come from a good family background, [and] I had a lot of opportunities. But even me, working as hard as I do, I still dance that line of what poverty is.”


For Fitzpatrick, the breaking point was having children.

“If I'd had the opportunity to have some paid leave, I think we'd be in a much different financial situation,” she said.

It’s a kind of poverty Glynn knows well. She said the family couldn’t afford a burial plot for her son, and were forced to cremate him instead.

“It's hard enough to lose a child but to have to decide those things as well,” Glynn said. “I had to make the decision because I quite literally could not afford any other option.”

Fitzpatrick says perhaps these kinds of decisions are something politicians have never had to deal with themselves. But for every politician, there are thousands more Americans facing tough choices about family leave every day.

“If so many other countries have paid leave and it's making stronger societies,” she asks, “why in America, with all the brain trust that we have and all the financial resources, can't we come up with a better solution for families?”

Ranjani Chakraborty | Editing by Erica R. Hendry


Left behind: In Ohio, broken election promises lead to a fight with cancer

In Ohio, a swing state, a voters can make or break presidential candidates. But residents of East Liverpool say politicians have ignored them for years. At the heart of their grievances is the WTI hazardous waste incinerator, which is just 320 feet from some East Liverpool homes. Its emissions include mercury, lead and other toxins. Residents report a high cancer rate and say many of their neighbors have moved away. In this America Tonight excerpt, Joie Chen and David Martin speak with local residents and the activists trying to shut down the incinerator.


Left behind: In 2016, Native Americans still fighting for a voice

SCHURZ, Nevada - Violent family fights. Suicide threats in the middle of the night. A 4-year-old girl beaten so badly her face was beyond recognition.

In Tammy Carrera’s years as the social services director on the Walker River Paiute Indian Reservation, a 325,000 patch of river valley between the mountains and desert lakes of Central Nevada, she had seen every side of what it’s like to lose hope — the anger, the depression, the substance abuse, the isolation.   

“We have so many things and so many issues that need to be dealt with. And if I can just be a little bit a part of that …. Oh, it brings out emotion in me,” she said. “You know because it's real, it's what we have to deal with here. Suicide, drugs, alcohol … no hope.”

The land in Nevada, home to more than 3,000 Walker River Paiutes like Carrera, is inhospitable, dry and desolate. The Walker River Paiute Indian Reservation, 39 miles south of Fallon, has the largest concentration of Paiutes in the state, but just one smoke shop – a squat ranch-style building set behind a set of gas pumps. In Schurz, the reservation’s only town, the buildings are sparse. A single elementary school sits nearby; there was a hospital, once, but it’s since shut down. Today, it’s a single-story community health clinic.

Here, political promises are easy to make but hard to keep. Few know that better than Carrera and the other Paiutes. For example the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed in 1868, promised Native Americans housing, education, health care and exclusive use of tribal lands bordered by Nebraska and the Dakotas. But while the agreement kept the peace for a few years, it failed to deliver. Soon, the U.S. Army took the land back; though Native Americans won compensation for the land a century later, they’re still displaced, fighting to reclaim it.

Today, Native Americans live on average four fewer years than the average American. Almost half of Native American students aren’t offered courses that prepare them for college. And across the country, 1 in 4 Native Americans live in poverty.

Even President Barack Obama, considered one of the most progressive leaders for Native Americans in the country’s history, has fallen short, Carrera and others say. For instance, Obama fought for months to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which allows tribes to prosecute those who commit domestic violence crimes in Indian Country whether they’re Native American or not, a move intended to improve the way courts, law enforcement and victims services coordinate to treat violence against women — and encourage more people to report it. 

But at the same time, his administration has, Carrera says, “failed to provide the funding so that we can update our law and order codes.”

“They don't supply any training on that,“ she says. “Now, we have laws for it … but [no] funding to do it.”

As Nevada approaches its 2016 caucus in February, the state’s Native Americans have two choices: Sit back or step up.

Many Walker River Paiutes leaders, like Carrera and Cynthia Oceguera, a tribal elder who returned to the reservation last year, have chosen the latter.

Despite their skepticism that change will come, the Paiutes have one of the highest voter turnout rates among Indian tribes.They’re trying to force change rather than waiting for it to come

“We find that some of the politicians, if it doesn't affect them, they don't care,” said Oceguera, who is trying to clean up what she says is decades worth of environmental neglect — and hold leaders accountable.



Tribal elder: Politicians should focus on issues, not sides of the aisle

To most of the country, Oceguera says, the reservation is “out of sight, out of mind.”

Unlike the state’s larger cities , like Fallon,  Reno, and Las Vegas,  there are no casinos in Schurz — or any other real business development.

“Poverty is a huge problem here because we don't have jobs available,” Oceguera says. “We don’t have economic development that we should have here.”

In 2008, Hillary Clinton won the Nevada caucus by five points, but then-Sen. Obama, who spent more money and time in the state's rural areas, won the overall delegate count.

Clinton was just one of many candidates who “don't touch base,” Carrera says, though she’s making an effort to now.

“They probably hit the larger cities in Nevada, so they kind of leave behind the rural areas and they don't come out and promote what they're doing,” she said.

When this year’s election rolled around, the Clinton campaign stepped up its efforts, holding eight outreach events with Native Americans in Nevada this summer alone.

Otherwise, Oceguera says, being on the reservation can be an isolated, and at times lonely, existence.

Empty words, environmental neglect

For Oceguera, it wasn’t always this way. She was born and raised on the Walker River Paiute Reservation in 1954 and remembers the days when there was hope instead of hopelessness; when the land provided instead of poisoned.

She left the reservation with her small children in 1980 to pursue degrees in dietetics and business from the University of Reno, Nevada. Last year, she got a call from her cousin, then the chair of the tribe’s council.

“We need your help,” he said.

“Why?” she wondered.

Most others had given up.

In 2013, Obama told the Tribal Nations Conference that “the health of tribal nations depends on the health of tribal lands. So it falls on all of us to protect the extraordinary beauty of those lands for future generations.”

But after years of broken promises from Washington, those words are hollow for Oceguera.

Cynthia Oceguera has been trying to get the federal government's help in cleaning up these environmentally hazardous sites.
Alex Newman/Al Jazeera America

Take Walker Lake.

“Our name here in Walker River is Agai-Ticutta, and that means ‘fish eaters,’” said Oceguera, looking out at the lake.

As a child, she and her family used to come to lake to swim; they caught fish straight from the water to eat. Now, she’d never do that.

Cynthia Oceguera looks out over Walker Lake. When she was a child, the lake stretch up to the roadway (far right). Today, it loses 4.1 vertical feet each year.
Erica R. Hendry/America Tonight

Oceguera and others discovered the U.S. Army and Marines used the lake to dispose of munitions. While the government began cleanup in 1974, its work has been slow and sporadic, Oceguera said. Meanwhile, the lake has dropped dozens of vertical feet; today, it loses more than four vertical feet of water level each year. Its ecological collapse is human-made, advocates say. So are its poisoned waters. They don’t have many fish anymore, Oceguera says. 

It’s not just the lake that is contaminated: About 25 miles west of the Walker River Reservation, an abandoned copper mine has been contaminating the environment and tribal lands for decades, Oceguera said. In a state that depends heavily on mining, elected officials have done little to address the contamination.

This abandoned copper mine 25 miles from the Walker River Paiute Reservation has been contaminating the land for 15 years, activists say.
Erica R. Hendry/America Tonight

Finally, in January, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the cleanup of all hazardous substances and pollutants — a battle that took 15 years. 

Oceguera is also trying to clean up the reservation’s dumping ground. For years, residents have rolled their sedans and trucks over the soft earth to a six-foot trench, dumping bags of trash and other junk — old couches, vinyl photo albums, cans and bottles — into the narrow crevice several thousand feet away from the main road.

Something is always burning; low flames and embers are scattered in the pit and alongside it. When a trench becomes unmanageable, it’s filled with dirt and replaced with a fresh hole. The stench of burned plastic and waste is thick, weighing the air down like heavy curtains.

Oceguera wants to raise taxes a few dollars to pay for better trash collection. It’s a fight for which she hasn’t gotten much support. Change is slow on the reservation — from residents and elected officials alike. Still, she has faith in the process.

“We have to believe that we're still going to be heard,” she said. “No matter what.” 


Tribal elder: 'We have to have faith in the process'

Some people on the reservation share Oceguera’s faith. But Carrera says many more suffer in silence. It can be difficult to convince police to conduct safety checks on tribal land — they don’t want to be held liable for taking a suicidal suspect into custody — though sometimes they’ll follow Carrera as she drives those that need help to the nearest treatment center.

Still, says Carrera, because she’s been through the reservation's worst, she’s in a position to fight for its best — and more importantly, earn trust and inspire action.

That’s why come November, for the first time in many years, she’ll likely drive 250 miles on a two-lane ribbon of highway — from her new home in McDermitt, Nevada, where she’s relocated to help farther-flung Paiutes  — back to the reservation to cast a vote. She’s been torn over the years on whether her voice makes a difference, or whether politicians know she exists at all.

Despite everything, Carrera is optimistic — and she wants to bring others with her to the polls, too.

Suicide, drugs, alcohol, no hope – it’s real, she says. But “we need to be out there telling them what we need. And what's required for us to take care of our people,” she said.

If people like she and Oceguera won’t, who else will?

Sarah Hoye, Todd Reed, Erica R. Hendry