MANCHESTER, NH – Winston George struck up a conversation last week at Shaskeen Pub with a stranger who was working from his laptop. He was in town for Tuesday’s presidential primary.
George told Max Resnik, the media team lead with Local Voices Network, how he couldn’t vote because he is a convicted felon for a crime he committed as a teenager.
George, 41, of Hooksett, has never voted. He thought he lost that right for life.
Resnik quickly Googled if felons could vote in New Hampshire, and he told George anyone who is not currently in jail is eligible to vote, even felons.
“Possibly I’ll vote now, just because why not?” George said on Saturday, a few days since he had learned from Resnik it was a possibility. “Now I really have to pay attention so I know who to vote for.”
George says he has been tuned out of politics because he thought he couldn’t vote and still questions if his vote will even matter.
“I’m not in a tax bracket where my vote will count. I’m living paycheck to paycheck, I got to get to work every day and get my son on the bus every morning,” George said. “That doesn’t change whether it’s Obama or Trump in the White House.”
George served five years in prison for an armed robbery he committed when he was 19, he explained. He pulled a gun on a convenience store clerk to steal money, asked them to put money in the bag and left, he said.
“Looking back on it, even to this day, I question ‘where were you at mentally to think of this’,” George said, reflecting on his past. He served his five years and, since his release from prison, has maintained a job and paid taxes.
George works about 40 to 50 hours a week in Manchester. He raises his 10-year-old son, Winston, and also helps out his mom.
“The hardest-working people in the world are poor,” he said, including his mom, who has been cleaning houses for over 40 years. She has problems with her hands because of all of the cleaning she has done, “and she’s still poor,” George said.
Although he works and pays taxes, George says he doesn’t have the same rights as others who work and pay taxes because he is a convicted felon, a debt to society he thought he paid for through his incarceration.
One right he wishes was restored is his right to volunteer with his son’s activities.
“Is anyone fighting for felons’ rights?” George asked.
He explained that because he is a convicted felon he’s lost his right to do basic things, like volunteer for his son’s school and sports teams.
“I didn’t [commit a crime involving] kids,” George said. “No matter how much time passes you never get your rights back, you are paying for that same crime.”
Coming out of prison creates lots of hurdles, like finding a job and a place to live, and those struggles make reintegrating back into society hard, George explained. He hopes he can find complete forgiveness someday for what he did as a teenager.
Voting as a convicted felon
In New Hampshire, according to state statute, “a person who is incarcerated for a felony loses the right to vote only during the period of actual incarceration,” says Jane E. Young, New Hampshire’s Deputy Attorney General. “A person who is not incarcerated, due to a suspended sentence or release on probation/parole, may register and vote… This is similarly applicable to persons who are convicted of a felony in a different state who move to New Hampshire and are otherwise qualified to vote.”
Rep. Nicole Klein-Knight, D-Manchester, came across this issue when she was knocking on doors in 2018 asking people to vote for her. There were dozens of different answers from people who were felons not understanding when they could vote, whether it was years after they were released or if they lost their right for good.
“They were given this information by their parole officers, even parole officers didn’t know their rights,” Klein-Knight said. So she attempted to look up the law to be able to better inform people in her district, but she couldn’t understand the law as written either, she said.
“People can actually vote, people have been able to vote all along,” Klein-Knight realized when talking to state officials. “We need to rewrite (the law) so people can understand.”
So in her first term as a state representative Klein-Knight created legislation to clarify felons could vote after they were released from incarceration. The law also requires parole officers to have education on felons’ rights, including voting, so they can inform the people they work with.
Klein-Knight said stories like George’s happen all too often, and she hopes her legislation can help clarify felons are eligible to vote.
There is also the possibility of same-day registration across the state, but George says he has yet to make up his mind if he will register and vote on Tuesday.
He doesn’t consider himself a Democrat or Republican, because if you listen to either side there are good points, he says.
If he does decide to vote, George says he’s for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., because of what he’s heard about his positions on healthcare and free college education.
“If education is the key to the world why is it so expensive?” says George.
He says that knowing he can vote doesn’t answer the bigger question of whether his vote can make a difference.
“Voting might make a change, I don’t know, I’ve never done it,” George says. “I do know spending time with my children and teaching them to be better people will make a difference.”