Kara Gotsch is the director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform organization based in Washington, DC.
Andres Idarraga , a 29-year-old junior at Brown University and a prominent activist in Providence, finally won his right to vote on Election Day, 2006. Idarraga was incarcerated for six-and-a-half years and believes the right to vote is a significant and crucial aspect to rebuilding his life and to contributing to his community. He worked with voting rights organizations in Rhode Island for over a year to support a state ballot measure that restored the right to vote to individuals after they leave prison. When voters approved it, more than 15,000 citizens, including Idarraga, won back their right to vote. “I went to register to vote the other day,” he said recently. “It feels good to be a part of the democratic process.”
The Rhode Island campaign is but the latest victory in a national movement to expand voting rights to people with felony records—an estimated 5.3 million Americans. Forty-eight states (all but Maine and Vermont) and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense. In 35 states, people on parole also cannot vote. And, in the dozen most regressive states, the right to vote can be permanently denied to people with felony records. Nationally, 74 percent of the disenfranchised population lives in the community, including two million who have completed their sentence.
During the Jim Crow era, disenfranchisement laws in southern states were revised to silence the political voice of newly emancipated slaves. Today, racial disparities in the criminal justice system contribute to dramatic rates of felony disenfranchisement for African Americans. Thirteen percent of black men are disenfranchised and as many as 40 percent of black men are projected to lose their right to vote in states that disenfranchise after completion of sentence. Disproportionate disenfranchisement in communities of color means the concerns of those communities are not fairly represented at the polls.
Momentum for disenfranchisement reform began 10 years ago when the Texas legislature and then Governor George W. Bush repealed a two-year waiting period required for vote restoration after completion of sentence. The change restored rights to an estimated 317,000 people. Since 1997, 16 states have taken steps to reform disenfranchisement laws, and more than 600,000 people have regained their voting rights. Polling suggests that the public supports these efforts, with eight in 10 Americans favoring voting rights for persons who have completed their sentence. Additional support has emerged from the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, which recommended the restoration of voting rights to persons upon completion of sentence. Calls for reform are also endorsed by organizations like the American Correctional Association and American Bar Association.
This year policymakers in 20 states have introduced legislation that addresses felony disenfranchisement, the vast majority of which promote expanded voting access. Voting rights advocates in states like Maryland and Florida are optimistic that 2007 will be an important year for progressive reform.
In Maryland, legislation passed in 2002 eased the lifetime voting ban on people convicted of two non-violent offenses but imposed a three-year waiting period after completion of sentence before the right to vote was restored. State organizations including Justice Maryland, the Maryland League of Women Voters and the ACLU are mobilized to advance legislation that simplifies the voting system by automatically restoring the right to vote upon completion of sentence. A rally sponsored by the African Methodist Episcopal Church brought 400 activists to the state capital this week, and new Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley has indicated willingness to address the issue.
In Florida, a state with one of the most notorious policies in the country, the election of a new Republican Governor, Charles Crist, has raised hopes for reform among the one million people who are disenfranchised. During his campaign for election, Crist reversed course and announced his support for eliminating Florida’s draconian lifetime ban on voting for all people with felony records. As the state’s Attorney General, Crist had endorsed Governor Jeb Bush’s disenfranchisement policy, but he bucked support for the lifetime ban in the fall. Now advocates in Florida hope Crist will sign an executive order reinstating the vote to hundreds of thousands of men and women.
Felony disenfranchisement not only raises concerns about democracy and fairness, but it also runs counter to the goal of public safety. At a time when a record number of Americans are being released from prison, denying the vote to millions of people who are living in the community, working and raising their families hinders efforts for successful reintegration. Research has shown that former offenders who vote are less likely to be rearrested than nonvoters. Voting promotes public safety because people who vote are more likely to feel connected to their communities and to avoid falling back into crime.
In previous periods of our history, women, African Americans, and poor people were not permitted to vote, but we have long since come to recognize the misguided nature of those prohibitions. Just as those exclusionary policies were finally reconsidered, so too, should the country reexamine the wisdom of barring voting by people with felony records.