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June 24, 2017

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Voter registration effort reaches out to unlikely constituency: ex-inmates

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Leila Navidi

Antoinette Banks, left, helps former inmate Wesley Ranson register to vote outside of Mario’s Westside Market in Las Vegas on Friday, April 27, 2012.

Registering Former Inmates as Voters

Antoinette Banks registers voters outside of Mario's Westside Market in Las Vegas on Friday, April 27, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Mario's Westside Market

As customers entered Mario’s Westside Market on a recent Friday afternoon, they might not have noticed the nondescript table and its occupants sitting outside.

There were no signs or group logos, just papers impeccably stacked on a table beside a pile of pens.

Nearby, a neatly dressed Antoinette Banks, 42, sat in a folding chair next to her friend, watching streams of people come and go from the neighborhood store on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

“How are you doing?” Banks asked those nearing the door, catching their attention. “Are you registered to vote?”

Many politely said yes and made their way inside. Others who declined cited their criminal history, prompting Banks to give her best sales pitch: Former inmates can register to vote in Nevada, and it only takes five minutes.

“If they’re interested and listen, they’ll stop,” she explained. “Either you want to or you don’t.”

Fifty-year-old Wesley Ranson was one who stopped. Ranson said he was released from federal prison seven months ago after serving time for an armed bank robbery in 1994.

“Everybody makes bad decisions,” he said. “Everybody is entitled to a second chance.”

His rationale mirrors that of Banks, a one-time offender herself. She served a two-year prison sentence in Oklahoma related to a bogus check conviction.

“It was a stupid crime,” she said, “but you pay for it for not knowing.”

She was released April 1, 2010. Three days later, she boarded a Greyhound bus and moved to Las Vegas — a place to start fresh and be near her parents, who now live in Pahrump.

“One thing you have to do as an ex-offender is change your circumstances and your environment,” she said.

Vowing to change her life and be a positive role model for her three children, one of whom was incarcerated in Oklahoma, Banks immediately began school. In June, she earned her associate’s degree in paralegal studies from ITT Tech and, several months later, began her own company, Banks Paralegal Services.

Through her work in the community, Banks said one question seemed to surface frequently: Are former inmates allowed to vote in Nevada?

The short answer is yes, Banks learned after talking to officials at the Clark County Election Department.

•••

Under Nevada law, anyone convicted of a felony other than those in category A or B — such as murder or a crime resulting in substantial bodily harm — is eligible to vote if he or she was honorably discharged from probation or parole, or released from prison.

As of September 2008, if felons no longer have the documentation proving so or if they were convicted in another state, a notarized affidavit confirming the restoration of their civil rights can be submitted to the Nevada Election Department, said Catherine Smith, election program supervisor.

(Those convicted of a category A or B felony or anyone with two or more separate felonies must petition the court to have voting rights restored, according to the Nevada Revised Statutes.)

Once a month, the Election Department checks its file of registered voters, and any felons who registered in that time period receive a letter detailing what’s required to prove restored voting rights, said Larry Lomax, Clark County’s registrar of voters.

The Election Department sends about 10 to 100 letters a month to felons explaining the process, and that number rises as a presidential election nears, Smith said.

“I get calls every day from different ex-felons,” she said. “When they hear they can (vote), and I tell them what they need to do, they’re usually satisfied with that.”

•••

The conversation spurred Banks to action. In November, she started manning a table in various public areas and registering voters, putting special emphasis on reaching out to former inmates.

Since then, Banks said she has helped register about 70 former inmates, free of charge. She explains the requirements, they fill out the necessary paperwork and, as a paralegal, she notarizes any affidavits.

Then she submits the new registrations to the Election Department, where officials enter the information into their system. Election Department officials said Banks was a community volunteer and not affiliated with the department.

Banks admits there’s a stigma attached to being a former inmate, especially when it comes to civil rights. But part of transitioning back into society and being a viable adult means exercising the right to vote, she said.

“We need to start over,” she said. “I can’t say too much for those who are repeat offenders or career criminals.”

That’s why she plans to continue reaching out to others like herself this election year, including from 2 to 5 p.m. Friday at Mario’s Westside Market.

For the primary election, the last day to register without having to appear at the Election Department is May 12. For the general election, the deadline is Oct. 6, which is followed by a 10-day period in which people can visit the Election Department to register.

“If you’re given the opportunity to be able to vote again as an ex-felon, why not take advantage of it?” Banks said.

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