February 2, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 25

Voting rights denied for convicted felons

Vidya Rao

Paul Robinson is an American citizen, a veteran, a father — and a man that may never be able to vote. 4.7 million people, including Robinson, are currently being denied the right to vote throughout the United States as a result of having felony convictions on their records.

Fourteen states, including Massachusetts, do not allow felons to vote, but do reinstate voting rights immediately after their release from prison. Eight states permanently disenfranchise felons depending on the type of felony conviction. In four states — Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia and Florida — people with any felony conviction are barred for life from the polls, unless the government grants them individual rights through a petition process. Robinson had the unfortunate luck to commit his crime of conspiracy to distribute in Alabama, thus giving up his right to vote forever.

These laws disproportionately affect black and Latino men, as they are incarcerated on felony charges at much higher rates that whites. Nationally, 13 percent of black men are unable to vote and 36 percent of the disenfranchised are black — as opposed to 6 percent being white.

“These laws are definitely racial in nature,” says Mervyn Marcano of Right to Vote, an organization working to enfranchise people with felonies on their records. “Certain states — such as Florida and Alabama — enacted these laws after poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses were deemed unconstitutional, as a means of keeping African Americans from voting.”

African Americans constitute 5 percent of the Massachusetts population, yet represent 29 percent of those who are disenfranchised. Prior to 2000, felons in Massachusetts were able to vote, though they did not vote in large numbers. According to Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, a New England-based nonprofit working to re-enfranchise felons, it was the threat of prisoners organizing that catalyzed the issue of voting rights for felons and led policymakers to push to deny them the right to vote. “A small group of lifetime prisoners were organizing a voting bloc against then acting governor Paul Celluci. They raised $327, and all of a sudden they were punished and their rights were taken away with almost no debate,” Wagner explains. The amendment was introduced, voted on and passed during the Nov. 2000 election.

Countries such as Israel, Japan, Kenya, Poland and Peru allow and often encourage prisoners to vote. Vermont and Maine are the only two states that allow prisoners to maintain their right to vote. Iowa was one of those states that permanently disenfranchised felons, until last July, when Gov. Tom Vilsack signed an executive order extending the right to vote to those who had completed their sentences.

“It’s the right thing to do. Research indicates that when people are successfully reintegrated into society after they’ve paid their debt to society, they are less likely to re-offend,” a spokesman for Vilsack told the Des Moines Register after the decision.

But opponents argue that the 14th Amendment allows for states to deny the vote to people “for participation in rebellion or other crime.” Many say that reinstating the vote, particularly to those still behind bars, sends the wrong message about what it means to be a responsible citizen and jeopardizes the necessity for society to protect itself from criminals.

Advocates disagree. “The wrong message is that we think we can have a democracy which doesn’t include the voices of all of its citizens,” says Marcano. “A democracy should represent everyone.”

In Florida alone, 7 percent of the total population is permanently disenfranchised, with almost 257,000 of those being African American. A number of voters, says Wagner, that could have easily swayed the controversial presidential election in 2000. According to a study conducted by University of Minnesota sociology professor Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza of Northwestern University, had even a small percentage of Florida’s overwhelmingly Democrat-leaning ex-felons voted, Bush would have been defeated by up to 80,000 votes.

“Many people who oppose felons regaining the right to vote say ‘we don’t want prisoners to decide our laws and affect our communities,’” Wagner explains. “But what they are really saying is ‘you made a mistake and we do not want to consider you a part of society anymore.’”

Others opposed to extending the right to vote fear that felons and ex-felons will create a voting bloc that will be soft on crime.

“That argument is silly for a variety of reasons, as only 5-10 percent of felons were voting, and many of them support anti-crime laws,” says Wagner. “Besides that, laws need to be proposed by legislators before they can even be voted on.”

Currently organizations such as Right to Vote, Prison Policy Initiative and the Sentencing Project are working to extend the right to vote through educational forums, lobbying and litigation.

In Massachusetts, the lawsuit Simmons v. Calvin is challenging the constitutionality of denying felons the right to vote, working its way through the courts. Several pending cases in Florida and Alabama are challenging the disenfranchisement of ex-felons as well.

For many ex-felons, voting represents one step in the transition from inmate to a functioning member of society. “Ex-felons still have to pay taxes, therefore, they should be able to vote,” says Marcano.

“For the previously incarcerated, it is about making the walk back into society. I believe people with felony convictions are as capable as anyone else; we are not ‘damaged goods,’ but rather badly needed voices in a society where few people think twice about how the criminal justice system works — or doesn’t work,” says Robinson.



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