Restoring the Vote

The disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies is one of the great exclusions of civic life in the United States. The problem's dimensions are large and growing larger. As of 1998, according to the Sentencing Project's groundbreaking 1999 report Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States, 3.9 million Americans were barred from voting as a result of felony convictions and a patchwork of inconsistent laws governing the restoration of voting rights. Current estimates raise this figure to 4.2 million. Almost one-third of these disenfranchised citizens are African-American men. In eight states, individuals convicted of felonies can never get back their rights. Many of the laws that keep ex-offenders from voting date back to Reconstruction--Florida's law, for instance, was passed in 1868--and are clearly intended to limit the franchise of African Americans. The Latino community is disproportionately affected as well.

In recent decades, the effect of these laws has been amplified dramatically as state governments have incarcerated unprecedented numbers of young men. In seven states, more than 25 percent of African-American men are permanently disenfranchised. Indeed, in most states the period of lost voting rights is lengthy and the process of restoration confusing and daunting at best. Ex-offenders tend to assume they can never vote again, even in states where this is not true.

One need look no farther than Florida to see the political impact of this issue--a calculus well understood by the strategists who plotted George W. Bush's 2000 election campaign. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 500,000 Floridians were legally banned from voting in the last presidential election. Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush campaign official, made sure that this number stayed as high as possible with her unprecedented felon hunt. Thousands of eligible voters were wrongly purged in the process.

But public policy at the state level is moving in a more rational direction. Several states this year have passed laws that are beginning to undo this large-scale community disenfranchisement.

Connecticut has taken a major step in the right direction: This May Republican Governor John Rowland signed into law a measure that restores voting rights to convicted felons who are on probation. The new legislation allows 36,000 people who were previously barred to register and vote. It was passed with significant Republican support in the state legislature.

How was this victory possible? For one thing, the climate on criminal justice issues is starting to change. In Connecticut and elsewhere, policy makers have begun to re-examine the impact of the numerous "tough on crime" measures and the racial consequences of the criminal justice system. Connecticut's Department of Adult Probation saw the restoration bill as one tool to help "re-root" individuals who are returning to their communities from prison. The Department of Corrections also was supportive. Additionally, key legislators--including Democratic leaders and ranking Republicans on several relevant committees--understood the bill as a democracy issue, not a "soft on crime" issue. The legislature's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus made the bill a high priority and lobbied hard for it with Democratic leaders and the governor.

The coalition politics behind the victory are instructive as well. In 1999--after proposing the concept of allowing exoffenders to vote but failing to reach the radar screens of key committees and legislative leadership--Democratic Representative Kenneth Green, the chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, put the plan forward as an amendment to a strong public financing bill in the waning days of the legislative session. The amendment was passed on a voice vote, with some legislators supporting it as a poison pill to kill campaign finance reform. It was the reform community's worst nightmare. The predominantly white reformers and the civil rights activists blamed each other for the damage.

Afterward, however, Green and two Democratic colleagues--House Majority Leader David Pudlin and Representative Andrew Fleischmann, a sponsor of campaign finance reform--began to meet with several groups, led by the advocacy organization DemocracyWorks, to discuss supporting both issues as part of a democracy agenda. Those discussions led to the formation of the Voting Rights Restoration Coalition. Coalition membership has grown to 50 organizations, including traditional reform groups like Common Cause and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group; civil rights organizations; the official state commissions for women, African Americans, and Latinos; church groups; and social service agencies working in the criminal justice system, such as the 125-year-old Community Partners in Action (formerly the Connecticut Prison Association). This diverse and multiracial coalition lobbied hard and did solid public-education work among ex-offenders and in the community generally. During the 2000 session, the bill cleared the house but was not taken up by the senate. By 2001--with the presidential election and the Florida purge as a backdrop, and with a good year's work to build upon--the stage was set for the victory.

Connecticut is not alone in understanding how important it is to restore ex-offenders' civil rights. Several other states have acted positively on this issue in this year's legislative sessions. Thanks to a law passed in New Mexico this spring, an individualized pardon process is no longer required there: Restoration of voting rights is now automatic after completion of sentence. The Maryland legislature formed the Task Force to Study Repealing the Disenfranchisement of Convicted Felons in Maryland, which includes representatives from the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the League of Women Voters. In Kentucky, the Department of Corrections is now required to inform persons leaving prison about their voting rights and provide them with a form that will initiate the restoration process. The legislature in Nevada removed a five-year waiting period for restoration. Even in Florida, where none of the bills filed to allow re-enfranchisement was passed, Governor Jeb Bush's administration has moved to ease the process for an individual executive pardon, the only way a person can lift the otherwise permanent ban on his or her voting rights. In addition to the Brennan Center for Justice, the Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the American Civil Liberties Union also are filing suits that challenge Florida's permanent-disenfranchisement law.

These are small steps in a long journey to undo the exclusionary and racially discriminatory felony-disenfranchisement laws. But even a few years ago, the kind of legislation adopted in Connecticut would have been dismissed out of hand. These successes are encouraging and signal a heightened sense of urgency about the health and well-being of our democratic processes--and the advent of a new, multiracial movement for democratic reform.

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