He's watched seven presidential races roll by, and never voted in one. Reagan, Carter, Clinton, both Bushes -- they all won the White House without Warren Boyd's help.
But this year, Boyd won't let a vestige of his past -- a prison term -- stand in the way. This year, Boyd, 49, will have a say.
"I always figured my felony stayed with me, that I wasn't allowed to vote," said Boyd, a Vietnam veteran living at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. "Now I know the truth. I paid my debt to society, and I'm going to vote for the very first time."
Unlike Boyd, many of the nation's ex-felons will not show up at the polls on Nov. 2. More than 4.7 million Americans are barred from casting ballots because of a current or past conviction. But millions more simply don't know their voting rights, scholars say. Confused by folklore and misinformation, many ex-felons just throw up their hands.
California is one of 35 states that forbids convicts from voting while in prison or on parole. Seven states permanently ban ex-offenders from voting, or require them to obtain permission from a governor or legislature to regain the right. Seven others outlaw voting by certain categories of felons, or impose a waiting period.
This election season, with the presidential contest tight and memories of the disputed 2000 race still fresh, the exclusion of former felons from the electorate has attracted unusual attention.
To some criminal justice experts, barring ex-convicts from voting undercuts the foundation of representative democracy. Doing time for a crime, they say, does not make someone unfit to pick a leader or decide a ballot measure. Ex-convicts may own property, marry, handle weapons and have children. They are also expected to pay taxes.
Restoring voting rights to former felons can help them regain a sense of civic responsibility -- a stake in the world around them -- experts say. In that sense, inviting ex-cons to the polls may improve the odds that they will live productive, crime-free lives.
Voting empowers people "to bounce back and be part of life," said George Bell, director of men's ministries at the Union Rescue Mission, where a third of the residents are former felons. "Many of these men feel as if they've never had a voice. People need to have a sense that they belong, that they matter, that they're not marginalized."
Clyde Beasley, 38, spent 11 years behind bars in California on drug charges. He is now a successful entrepreneur and motivational speaker. But it was just last month that he learned of his right to vote.
"It was kind of strange," said Beasley, recalling how he felt when he filled out a voter registration form in Los Angeles. "I thought, 'You know, there is no one better than I am. You could be making a million dollars, but when it comes to voting, you're no better than me.' "
Not everyone agrees. At Crime Victims United of California, Chairwoman Harriet Salarno, whose daughter was killed in 1979, believes committing a crime should mean a lifetime ban from the polls.
"You lose your rights when you commit a felony," Salarno said. "That's how it should be."
But activists are working feverishly this campaign season to inform ex-convicts of their rights and get them registered to vote.
California has the nation's largest incarcerated population, with 164,000 people in state prisons and another 112,000 on parole. Community groups have been staking out supermarkets and other venues, distributing fliers encouraging ex-offenders to vote.
Pop stars and television celebrities are lending their voice to the cause. In a radio spot sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, Judge Greg Mathis of the nationally syndicated "Judge Mathis Show" tells ex-felons "to use your freedom and take back your power."
"You've served the system," said Mathis, who was once imprisoned on drug and weapons charges. "Now make the system serve you."
Voting bans have their roots in the post-Civil War era, when they were used -- along with literacy tests and poll taxes -- to keep blacks from casting ballots.
Because of the high proportion of minorities with felony convictions, the laws still have that effect. An estimated 13% of African American men have lost the right to vote, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group pushing for prison reforms.
In Washington, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced legislation last year to permit ex-convicts to vote in federal elections, even if barred from state elections.
"If we want former felons to become good citizens," Conyers said at the time, "we must give them rights as well as responsibilities, and there is no greater responsibility than voting."
Boyd understands that, and he is approaching his first encounter with the ballot box solemnly. Like many other ex-convicts, Boyd left prison in 1997 with no information about his voting rights.
"I never heard anything about it from anybody," he said.