September 1, 2010
Despite the many important advancements in voting rights since the 1965 signing of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), racial and language minorities in particular still face significant obstacles in registering to vote and casting ballots. Racial bias in the criminal justice system, felon disfranchisement laws and discriminatory election systems continue to have a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on minority communities. The ACLU is fighting to restore voting rights to all minority communities through advocacy and legal efforts, including the elimination of barriers to voting based on criminal records.
A patchwork of state felony disfranchisement laws, varying in severity from state to state, prevent approximately 5.3 million Americans with felony (and in several states misdemeanor) convictions from voting. In Virginia and Kentucky, a felony conviction means you lose your right to vote for life. Although African-Americans comprise only 12 percent of the country's general population, they account for 40 percent of those who are disfranchised. Indeed, the laws themselves are a relic of the Jim Crow era; the intent behind them was to bar minorities from voting.
The ACLU's Right to Vote campaign works throughout the country to promote automatic, paperwork-free re-enfranchisement for people convicted of felonies upon their release from incarceration. Working with state affiliates and allies, the ACLU advocates for voting rights restoration that does not require an application or a waiting period and that is not contingent on the payment of legal financial obligations. Re-enfranchisement would not only restore the fundamental right to vote, but facilitate rehabilitation and reduce rates of recidivism.
On a national level, the ACLU is also advocating for Congressional action to restore voting rights in federal elections to the millions of Americans who have been released from incarceration. The Democracy Restoration Act, introduced in July 2009 by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), would establish a uniform standard for restoring the right to vote in federal elections to millions of American citizens with felony convictions who have been released from prison or are serving probation sentences.
Notably, disfranchisement policies in the United States are significantly harsher than, and out of step with, those in democratic countries around the world. Other democracies disfranchise far fewer people with criminal convictions, and virtually none disfranchise citizens after they complete their sentences.