Elections

Citizens, even felons, can register to vote at Riverfest

The Sedgwick County Election Office will be registering people to vote, updating voter information and recruiting election workers on festival grounds during Riverfest
The Sedgwick County Election Office will be registering people to vote, updating voter information and recruiting election workers on festival grounds during Riverfest File photo

He was off the voter rolls for 32 years.

But Andy Gerdau is registered again at age 56 after learning that having a felony conviction doesn’t necessarily mean a lifetime ban on casting ballots.

Restoring such a basic American privilege in March left him feeling elated, said Gerdau, who lost his voting rights in 1983 after he was found guilty of giving a worthless check to a local department store.

He plans to hit the polls in November for the general election.

“The right to vote is so instrumental to the American public,” Gerdau said. “Everyone has an opinion, everybody has a thought.

“But if you can’t vote, your opinion doesn’t mean squat.”

Informing those with felony convictions that they can restore their voting rights is one of the missions of the Peace and Social Justice Center’s Job and Education-Not Incarceration (JENI) program during this year’s Riverfest. The group will be helping people register to vote daily from 5 to 8 p.m. through June 11 during its “Get your vote back” initiative.

A booth will be set up outside the festival’s food court at Douglas and Water.

The Sedgwick County Election Office will also be registering people to vote, updating voter information and recruiting election workers on festival grounds during Riverfest, election commissioner Tabitha Lehman said:

▪ 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday near the Kansas Lottery area, south of the food court

▪ 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. June 11, again in the lottery area

Anyone who’s interested in registering to vote needs to provide a paper or digital copy of their birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. Anyone who forgets can still fill out registration forms but must submit documentation later to complete the process.

“This is the first time that we have done this since I’ve been the election commissioner,” Lehman said of her office’s voter registration efforts at Riverfest.

How many people does she think will take advantage of the opportunity?

“I hope it’s a lot.”

Janice Bradley, co-chair of the Peace and Social Education Fund, which covers the JENI program, said the majority of people with felony convictions just don’t know they are eligible to vote again after they are “off paper,” meaning they’ve completed their entire sentence, including any parole or probation ordered.

“We found during our work … that a lot of people weren’t voters because they were ex-felons, and they thought they could never vote again in their lives,” Bradley said.

“Kansas actually changed the laws to allow that in 1957.”

Of felons she has informed so far, she said, most “feel like they got part of their life back.”

“They’re very interested in getting that civic engagement back and taking part in the political process.”

Gerdau, who lives near Clearwater, is one of them. Bradley told him he was eligible to vote when she encountered him outside the Sedgwick County Courthouse in downtown Wichita on March 4.

Gerdau was disbelieving because he was told he had been stripped of his voting rights after he received his felony conviction at age 24. He said he thought that ban was for life.

But he decided to try anyway on Bradley’s advice.

So he filled out a registration form and provided the clerk with proof of his citizenship. He walked out with a smile, knowing his vote would count in the next election.

“I shouldn’t have put myself in that predicament in the first place, so that’s my fault,” Gerdau said of his conviction. Losing his voting rights was devastating.

Now that he has them back, he says he feels “like an American again.”

“I was born an American. I lost that privilege so I didn’t feel like 100 percent an American citizen.

“And getting that right back just makes it just that much more clear to me that it’s so important to us as a nation and as a community as well.”

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker

If you go

What: Voter registration at Riverfest

When: 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. June 11 at the Sedgwick County Election Office booth

The Job and Education-Not Incarceration (JENI) booth is open daily from 5 to 8 p.m. through June 11.

Where: The Sedgwick County Election booth will be near the Kansas Lottery area south of the food court on Thursday and June 11. The JENI booth will be at Douglas and Water near the food court.

What to bring: Proof of citizenship, in paper or digital form. A cellphone photo will work. You can still fill out the registration forms if you forget the documents, but you’ll have to submit them later.

Other things to know: If you aren’t a Sedgwick County resident you can still register at Riverfest. The local election office will forward your forms to the correct county, Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said.

Also, the deadline to change your party affiliation for the primary election has already passed. But there’s still time to do it before November’s general election.

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