Jack Kemp, the former football star turned congressman who served as secretary of housing and urban development under the first President Bush and was the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee, passed away May 2. Much has been made of his work to include more people of color in the Republican Party, but less attention has been paid his work that had little to do with party politics: his support for voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.
Kemp was a strong and forceful supporter of voting rights for the millions of men and women around the country who, even after being released from incarceration, are still barred from voting. He simply believed restoring their voting rights was the correct thing to do. Kemp first spoke out on the issue when testifying at a House judiciary hearing on the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act. When asked by a member of Congress if he supported the right to vote for the formerly incarcerated, he unhesitatingly responded “yes,” saying “voting in America is the quintessential part of our democracy.”
After he made that statement, voting rights advocates reached out to Kemp to involve him in felon enfranchisement work throughout the country, and he became an important partner in the fight to expand the right to vote to all Americans. Inspired by his and his wife’s work with Prison Fellowship and because the issue, in his words, “is a matter of simple fairness,” he advocated for reform in Florida, Maryland, Kentucky and Virginia, and nationally with the Democracy Restoration Act, urging legislators to take action on what he deemed a “historic civil rights reform.”
Let us honor Kemp’s memory by continuing to expand the franchise to all Americans. We offer our deepest condolences to the Kemp family and leave you with his words:
For a nation that depends on the participation of its citizens, it is fundamentally un-American to deny the vote to people who are living and working as law-abiding citizens…The continuing expansion of the franchise — to the poor, women, minorities and young people – is one of the greatest stories in our country’s history.