JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A Democratic group crucial to John Kerry's presidential campaign has paid felons — some convicted of sex offenses, assault and burglary — to conduct door-to-door voter registration drives in at least three election swing states.
America Coming Together (search), contending that convicted criminals deserve a second chance in society, employs felons as voter canvassers in major metropolitan areas in Missouri, Florida, Ohio and perhaps in other states among the 17 it is targeting in its drive. Some of the felons lived in halfway houses, and at least four returned to prison.
ACT canvassers ask residents which issues are important to them and, if they are not registered, sign them up as voters. They gather telephone numbers and other personal information, such as driver's license numbers or partial Social Security numbers, depending on what a state requires for voter registration.
Felons on probation or parole are ineligible to vote in many states. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center (search), which represents election officials, said he is unaware of any laws against felons registering other people to vote.
A review of federal campaign finance and state criminal records by The Associated Press revealed that the names and hometowns of dozens of ACT employees in Missouri, Florida and Ohio matched those of people convicted of crimes such as burglary, forgery, drug dealing, assault and sex offenses.
Although it works against the re-election of President Bush, ACT is an independent group not affiliated with the Kerry campaign — federal law forbids such coordination. Yet ACT is stocked with veteran Democratic political operatives, many with past ties to Kerry and his advisers.
ACT plans to spend about $100 million on initiatives to get out the vote for the presidential election, which likely will turn on how well Kerry and Bush can get their supporters to the polls.
ACT does not believe the felons it sends door to door pose a threat to the public, said Mo Elleithee, a Washington-based spokesman for the group.
"We believe it's important to give people a second chance," Elleithee said. "The fact that they are willing to do this work is a fairly serious indication that they want to become productive members of society."
Although ACT asks job applicants to cite their criminal history and hires some felons and not others, Elleithee would not reveal how many felons ACT has hired to canvass neighborhoods and register voters. They earn $8 to $12 per hour.
Elleithee confirmed that felons have been hired in Missouri, Florida and Ohio and said it is possible that felons have been hired in the other 14 states in which it's conducting its drive: Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Ed Gillespie (search), the chairman of the Republican Party, issued a statement calling the policy "disturbing" and questioned the group "proudly hiring felons convicted of sex offenses, assault and burglary to go house to house and handle sensitive personal information."
Citing security concerns for the public and for the felons, the Missouri Department of Corrections in April banished ACT from its pool of potential employers for parolees in its halfway houses in Kansas City and St. Louis, department spokesman John Fougere said. Five ACT employees lived at the Kansas City Community Release Center and two others at the St. Louis Community Release Center earlier this year.
"From a public safety standpoint, we didn't want offenders to be in a situation where they would be handling that information," Fougere said. Officials also were concerned the door-to-door campaign would put felons at greater risk of false accusations, he said.
Among the ACT employees in Ohio was a woman convicted of gross sexual imposition. She completed her parole 12 years ago.
"If she was still on parole that job wouldn't have been approved," said Andrea Dean, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Correction. "People who have been out of prison and haven't had any other problems with law enforcement, they should be given that second chance to be viable citizens."
In Florida, most felons released from prison are not on parole or probation. "If they're released from our custody and there is no other supervision ... we can't prohibit them from taking a job like this," said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections.
ACT adopted a policy against employing violent felons this spring, Elleithee said, but he declined to release the policy or to describe what the group considered violent.
"We're constantly looking internally to better our hiring practices," he said. "But the bottom line is we would never hire anyone who we felt was a threat to anyone else."
At least two felons who were stationed at a Missouri halfway house have since moved into the community and are again employed by ACT "and are a tremendous part of our team," Elleithee said.
Four of ACT's former employees living at a Missouri halfway house have since been returned to prison - two for drug violations, one for endangering the welfare of a child and another for walking away from the facility. None of the incidents was related to their work for ACT, Fougere said.