Forgotten citizens must be given back right to vote
November 1, 2006
On Election Day, 5.3 million American adults will be needlessly forced to stay away from the polls by their own state governments. The reason: At some point in their pasts, they were convicted of a felony.
Some of these men and women are still in prison, or on parole or probation, and live in states that temporarily remove a person's voting rights while they are serving out a sentence for their criminal activities.
But several million more are no longer involved in the criminal justice system in any way. They live in the community, many of them have jobs, they pay taxes and, like the rest of us, they are expected to obey the laws of the land.
Why can't these people vote? Because they happen to live in states such as Florida, Virginia, Mississippi or Alabama, which make it all but impossible for people to regain their ability to vote once that right has been taken from them.
In the past few years, many states have modified their disenfranchisement laws.
Last year, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack signed an executive order restoring the vote to the tens of thousands of ex-felons in his state.
This spring, legislators in Tennessee began simplifying the state's application process that ex-felons had to complete before gaining back their right to vote.
This fall, a circuit court judge in Alabama mandated the state to more accurately specify which kinds of crimes ought to result in a loss of voting rights, but then he weakened the ruling, on appeal, by largely postponing its enforcement until after the November elections.
In Kentucky, one of the worst states in the country when it comes to disenfranchisement, voting rights advocates are calling for partial pardons for some categories of felons so they can vote at the back end of their sentences.
In Rhode Island, a ballot initiative could determine whether parolees and those on probation can vote in future elections.
But in states that historically have been most aggressive in purging their voter rolls of felons, the problem shows no sign of abating.
In Florida, the epicenter of modern-day disenfranchisement, about 1 million people -- or 9 percent of the adult citizen population of the state -- cannot vote. (The current Republican candidate for governor, though, is calling for restoration of the vote).
In Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and several other states, upward of quarter-of-a-million residents are voteless.
Today, one in four black men throughout much of the South are now unable to vote, and a high percentage of poverty-level whites and Latinos are also disenfranchised.
The result: The electorate is shrunken, and, as it shrinks, election results do not reflect the full will or need of the population.
The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by ex-Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, has urged that states restore the vote to those who have completed their sentences. More recently, 31 U.S. Senators voted for a measure that would have restored the suffrage, at least for participation in federal elections, to ex-felons.
It is peculiarly chilling that, in a country as committed to the ideal of democracy as is America, millions are deprived of the vote.
This goes against our highest ideals as a democracy.
Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at Demos, a national, nonpartisan public policy and research center. He is the author of "Conned" (The New Press, 2006). He can be reached at email@example.com.