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The Democracy Restoration Act — Restoring a Civil Right Denied

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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August 4, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

As the Supreme Court has indicated, “[n]o right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.” Unfortunately, in America today, millions of citizens work, pay taxes, live in our communities and bring up families, yet they are without a voice. According to a 2008 ACLU/Brennan Center report, an estimated 5.3 million citizens cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction, and nearly 4 million of those citizens have been released from prison and are living and working in the community.

Worse still, felony disfranchisement laws are rooted in the Jim Crow era and were intended to bar minorities from voting. The impact of these laws continues today. Nationwide, 13 percent of African American men have lost the right to vote — a rate seven times the national average. Latino citizens are also disproportionately disfranchised because they are over-represented in the criminal justice system. In turn, this has impacted the families of those who are disfranchised and the communities in which they reside by reducing their collective political voice.

Confusion Surrounding State Laws

States have vastly different approaches to allowing those with criminal convictions to vote, which often compound the problems further. For example, some states disfranchise some, but not all, citizens with criminal convictions, while others allow voting after a sentence is completed or after release from prison. Two states, Virginia and Kentucky, permanently disfranchise citizens with felony convictions unless the state approves individual rights restoration; two states, Maine and Vermont, allow all persons with felony convictions to vote, even while incarcerated; all other states fall somewhere in between.

Unfortunately, this has caused widespread confusion about the proper administration of state laws, sometimes resulting in eligible voters, even those with no disqualifying criminal conviction, being purged from the rolls or denied the ability to register to vote or cast their ballots. Research indicates that many election officials do not understand their state’s basic voter eligibility laws or the registration procedures for voters with a criminal conviction.

A Legislative Solution: The Democracy Restoration Act of 2009

Congressional action is needed to establish a uniform standard that restores voting rights in federal elections to the millions of Americans who are living in the community, but continue to be denied the ability to fully participate in civic life. Fortunately, on July 24, 2009, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009 (H.R.3335 and S.1516).

The provisions of the Democracy Restoration Act would:

  • Restore voting rights in federal elections to nearly 4 million Americans who have been released from prison and are living in the community.
  • Ensure that individuals on probation never lose their right to vote in federal elections.
  • Notify people about their right to vote in federal elections when they are leaving prison, sentenced to probation, or convicted of a misdemeanor.

Passage of the Democracy Restoration Act would:

  • Create a uniform standard across the country in federal elections.
  • Strengthen our democracy by creating a broader and more just base of voter participation.
  • Aid law enforcement by encouraging participation in civic life, assisting reintegration, and rebuilding ties to the community.
  • Facilitate election administration by streamlining registration issues and eliminating the opportunity for erroneous purges of eligible voters.
  • Eliminate the confusion about who is eligible to vote.

Bipartisan Progress

While felony re-enfranchisement is often misperceived as a partisan issue, both Republicans and Democrats alike have supported state enfranchisement laws. Political leaders of both parties have recognized that felony disfranchisement laws make reconnecting to the community and rehabilitation much harder for those with convictions. Recently, the Republican governors of Louisiana and Florida and Democratic governors from Iowa, Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington have supported important felony enfranchisement reforms. In fact, these states are part of a growing trend towards the restoration of voting rights for people with criminal convictions. In the last decade, 20 states have reformed their laws to expand the franchise or ease voting restoration requirements.

Law Enforcement Support

Like political leaders, members of the law enforcement community have also come out in strong support of re-enfranchisement laws because they have determined that continuing to disfranchise individuals after release from prison is an ineffective law enforcement policy and does nothing to reduce crime. Allowing people with felony convictions to vote can improve civic engagement, strengthen our democracy, and may encourage them to steer away from future crimes. One study has found that former offenders who voted were half as likely to be re-arrested as those who did not.

The American Probation and Parole Association; Association of Paroling Authorities International; the National Black Police Association; and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives are just some of the law enforcement organizations that have expressed support for laws ensuring that people with past felony convictions are allowed to vote. As Ron Stalling, a member of the National Black Police Association, described in written testimony on a Maryland state felony voting bill, “[v]oting is an important part of making people feel connected to their communities, which in turn helps them avoid falling back into crime.”

By continuing to deny citizens the right to vote based on a past criminal conviction, the government is endorsing a system that expects these citizens to contribute to the community, but denies them participation in our democracy. It is time to restore the most precious of civil rights that has been denied far too long to millions of American citizens.

For those denied their political voice, your voice is needed to help pass the Democracy Restoration Act.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that the governor of Rhode Island supported felony enfranchisement legislation. While the Rhode Island Restoration of Voting Rights Act (H.B. 7938) did become law while Gov. Carcieri was in office, the law went into effect on July 7, 2006, without the governor’s signature.

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