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Denogean: Ex-con savors chance to vote in big election

'I have no hesitation in restoring your rights, Mrs. Convie, because you've done such a wonderful job of pulling your life together.'</p>
<p>Said to MICHELE CONVIE (above)</p>
<p>by a judge upon restoring her voting rights

'I have no hesitation in restoring your rights, Mrs. Convie, because you've done such a wonderful job of pulling your life together.'

Said to MICHELE CONVIE (above)

by a judge upon restoring her voting rights

There’s sure to be plenty of justified griping about the lengthy waits to vote Tuesday.

But it would take more than a long line at the polls to knock the beaming smile off the face of Michele Convie, a 59-year-old “virgin voter.”

Convie couldn’t vote before this year because of felony drug convictions. Her civil rights were restored in April, she voted in the primary and is voting for a U.S. president for the first time.

“I’m looking forward to Tuesday,” she said Friday. “I am so invested in what’s going on.”

For Convie, program coordinator of the Women’s Re-entry Network, which helps incarcerated women make the transition back into the community, this vote marks the completion of her journey back into the community as a citizen with a voice.

Convie was born and raised in the San Francisco area during the turbulent ’60s and early ’70s. She became pregnant at 17 and married the baby’s father. They became part of the hippie counterculture, experimenting with mind-warping drugs and scorning the bourgeois values of society. When the couple broke up after six years of marriage, Convie spiraled deeper into drug use and became addicted to heroin.

The addiction led to her incarceration on drug charges from 1975 to 1977 in California and from 1985 to 1987 in Arizona, where she had moved to be closer to her parents. Though she cleaned up her act after her second prison term, she was unable to vote in a state that has one of the strictest felon voting bans in the nation.

Under current Arizona law, people with more than one felony conviction are stripped of their civil rights, including the right to vote, serve on a jury and run for some public offices. Ex-felons have to wait two years after completion of their sentence to petition for restoration of their rights. And the court will reject the application if the person hasn’t paid all the court-ordered restitution, fines and fees.

When Convie was a young woman, she didn’t much care about politics. Voting was a fruitless exercise, a capitulation to the establishment. It wasn’t until a little over a decade ago that she gave much thought to the notion of disenfranchisement, that it meant she had lost the right to have a say in setting the direction for the community, of which she now felt very much a part.

She had remarried and was working and paying taxes. She was living in a house in the Tortolita area and recalled the dismay she felt one day when somebody asked her to sign a petition supporting incorporation. As an ex-felon, she couldn’t sign. For the first time, it really bothered her.

She still didn’t pursue restoration of her rights because the process seemed daunting, given her convictions in two states. It wasn’t until last year that she decided to do whatever was necessary.

“I just wanted to vote,” said Convie, who believes it’s unfair and counterproductive to disenfranchise people who have done the time for their crimes.

As it turned out, her California conviction wasn’t an issue. California state law automatically allows people with felony convictions to vote if they are out of prison and off parole. Convie filed her Arizona application for restoration of civil rights with the help of students from the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers School of Law, which works with local lawyers to ease ex-convicts through the process.

The application goes to the sentencing court and it just happened that the judge who sentenced Convie was still around. The restoration of her rights was a happy moment for both Convie and the Gila County judge.

Convie recalled his words: “I have no hesitation in restoring your rights, Mrs. Convie, because you’ve done such a wonderful job of pulling your life together.”

When I cast an early ballot on Friday, it took about 45 minutes to get to a voting booth. Convie and others who head to the polls on this Election Day could spend hours in line.

Don’t become discouraged. As Convie would say, voting is well worth the wait.

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.

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