Giving them back their vote

By Michelle Chen Jul 25, 2009

The 2008 election brought remarkable voter turnout from communities of color. But while Obama’s candidacy may have spurred historically underrepresented groups to go to the polls in record numbers, the political clout of many of those communities was undercut by systematic disenfranchisement. An estimated 5.3 million citizens nationwide are barred from voting because they have criminal convictions. And about four million of those are living in their communities, able to work and pay taxes yet unable to choose their representatives. Continuing a legacy of Jim Crow-era voter-suppression policies, felony disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect the voting power of people of color. Sadly, many could be eligible to restore their voting rights, but are deterred by complex and confusing re-enfranchisement procedures. Building on reform efforts in the states, Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) and Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) have introduced the Democracy Restoration Act. The ACLU’s factsheet breaks down the key features of the legislation:

• 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 probationers 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.
• 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.

The bill clearly doesn’t take on the more contentious issues surrounding felony disenfranchisement, like whether to allow people inside prisons to vote. Nor does it address the way the criminal justice system skews the entire electorate by disproportionately locking up people of color, especially Black males. It does, however, mark an official recognition of two facts: 1) the population of people with felony convictions has grown to the point that the social impact of their disenfranchisement can’t be ignored, and 2) a democracy’s validity is undermined when the right to participate can be removed as punishment for a crime. Image: Brown Spectator