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Protecting Small 'D' Democracy and the Right to Vote

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July 25, 2008

(Originally posted on Pam's House Blend).

Isn't the right to vote freely for a candidate of your choosing just that: the right to vote freely for a candidate of your choosing?

Not according to one Virginia legislator, who seemed to forget the whole principle of small "d" democracy when he characterized efforts to educate people with felony convictions about their right to vote as a big "D" Democratic conspiracy. "I don' t know a lot of young Republicans who end up being felons," C. Todd Gilbert told The Washington Post. "Clearly the groups that are soliciting these felons to get their rights restored are predisposed to be in support of Obama, and I am sure this registration effort is designed to help their candidate."

(By way of background, a patchwork of state felony disfranchisement laws, inconsistent from state to state, prevent a whopping 5.3 million Americans with past felony—and, in seven states, misdemeanor—convictions from voting. More are disfranchised by general confusion about and elections officials' misapplication of these laws.)

Even if we indulge the Gilberts of the world momentarily, all we have to do is scratch the surface to see that plenty of Republicans have helped reform their states' disfranchisement policies in favor of greater enfranchisement. (Not to mention the fact that people of all political persuasions go to prison; just check out this New York Times interview with people incarcerated in Maine and Vermont.)

Louisiana's Republican Governor Bobby Jindal just signed a bill that requires the Department of Public Safety and Corrections to notify people leaving its custody about voting rights restoration and to provide them with a voter registration form. Jindal is in good company. It was Florida's Republican Governor Charlie Crist who revised his state's antiquated law last year to ease voter restoration for some people with nonviolent felony convictions. And George W. Bush, when he was Governor of Texas, signed a bill eliminating the state's two-year waiting period before voting rights could be restored.

These distinguished gentlemen are joined in their support of increased access to the polls for this population by Jack Kemp (former Congressman and Republican Vice-Presidential candidate) and Chuck Colson (Nixon's former Chief Counsel), and no one questions their Republican cred. In fact, a diverse array of organizations has spoken in favor of greater enfranchisement, including the American Probation and Parole Association, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Correctional Association.

Felony disfranchisement's nasty roots in voter suppression should remind us that promoting access to the polls for all eligible voters is fundamental to the health of our democracy. Following the Civil War, Southern states faced the enfranchisement of large African-American populations as a result of the 15th Amendment; in response, they scrambled to maintain white rule by, among other things, enacting or reforming felony disfranchisement laws in order to curtail African-Americans' access to the polls.

Mississippi, for example, revised its constitution to impose disfranchisement as a penalty only for the crimes of which African-Americans were most frequently convicted. When Virginia's disfranchisement laws were debated at the state's 1901-1902 Constitutional Convention, one delegate argued that felon disfranchisement would "eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years, so that in no single county…will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of the government."

Over 100 years later, felony disfranchisement laws remain in effect and continue to restrict the political power of communities of color and individuals of all stripes. This is not a partisan issue, it's a democracy issue. The Washington Post, Boston Globe and Roanoke Times agree. See, C. Todd Gilbert? The right to vote is something we can all get behind.

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