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Poll and Post Agree: Criminal Disfranchisement Laws Are Unjust

Sandhya Bathija,
Washington Legislative Office
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January 23, 2012

Criminal disfranchisement proved to be a hot issue in the Republican presidential debates recently, leading to a CNN poll asking, “Should felons be allowed to vote after serving their sentences?”

The results showed that the majority feel that those with past convictions should have that right. The Washington Post also editorialized on the issue Friday, making the point that it is unjust to prevent “individuals from having a full stake and a full voice in the community and its leadership” after they have already paid their debts to society and earned their right to freedom.

Additionally, the Post ran an op-ed by Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship and former counsel to President Richard Nixon who also saw no point in denying the right to vote for those who have already served their time.

“Voting does not put anyone in danger,” he wrote. “Sound public policy would teach us that if we want to turn ex-offenders into responsible citizens, we must demand of them responsible behavior. And once they demonstrate responsible behavior, what possible justification is there, beyond scoring political points during an election, for stripping them of their civil rights for the rest of their lives?”

Criminal disfranchisement laws, like recent laws requiring ID to vote or restricting third-party registration of voters, have a disproportionate and unfair impact on minorities. Criminal disfranchisement laws have their roots in the Jim Crow era and their harmful effects continue today as 13 percent of African-American men have lost their right to vote – a rate seven times the national average. Similarly, Latino citizens are also disproportionally disfranchised because they are over-represented in the criminal justice system.

Due to these laws in states throughout the nation, an estimated 5.3 million citizens cannot vote, and nearly four million of those are not in prison but working in our communities. The Democracy Restoration Act, which has been introduced in both the House and Senate, would eliminate the confusion around these laws and restore the right of millions to vote in federal elections.

“Citizens should not be denied their right to vote due to a past criminal conviction,” said Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU senior legislative counsel. “They are working, paying taxes, raising families and living in our communities. They deserve to have a voice.”

Criminal disfranchisement laws are another example of voter suppression tactics that threaten our democracy. Our government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding whose vote matters most. Elected officials should be seeking ways to encourage more Americans to vote, not erecting barriers to deny voters the access to the ballot.

Tell Congress to act now to restore one of our most fundamental rights by supporting the Democracy Restoration Act.

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