Time for the restoration of ex-felon voting rights

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Bravo to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for calling for the restoration of ex-felon voting rights. Someone who has repaid their debt to society should not be forever banned from the franchise to vote. This holdover provision from Jim Crow laws should go. We are a better country than this. Holder Urges States to Lift Bans on Felons’ Voting:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called Tuesday for the repeal of laws that prohibit millions of felons from voting, underscoring the Obama administration’s determination to elevate issues of criminal justice and race in the president’s second term and create a lasting civil rights legacy.

In a speech at Georgetown University, Mr. Holder described today’s prohibitions — which in some cases bar those convicted from voting for life — as a vestige of the racist policies of the South after the Civil War, when states used the criminal justice system to keep blacks from fully participating in society.

“Those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Holder said. “They could not vote.”

Mr. Holder has no authority to enact the changes he called for, given that states establish the rules under which people can vote.

This is true. But Arizona can do something to correct this historical injustice. There is currently a bill sponsored by Rep. Martín J. Quezada (D-Phoenix), HB 2132 (.pdf), which would make it easier for felons to get back right to vote (Arizona Capitol times, subscription required):

Saying that voting can help former felons reintegrate into everyday life, a state lawmaker wants to make it easier for them to get back that right.

“I think that people that have served their time and paid their debt to society that it’s important for them to get their most fundamental right – constitutional right – the right to vote, to get it back,” said Rep. Martín J. Quezada, D-Phoenix.

He authored HB 2132, which would restore the right to vote to a person who has been convicted of two or more felonies after completing probation or receiving an absolute discharge from the Arizona Department of Corrections. The latter requires completing a prison term and parole and paying restitution in full.

At present, members of that group must apply to vote again, a process that varies by county.

“The right to vote being so fundamental … it seems automatic restoration of that right in particular is critical to making us a better-functioning society,” Quezada said.

First-time felons currently get back the right to vote automatically after completing probation or receiving an absolute discharge and paying fines and restitution. The bill would allow restoration before full payment of fines and restitution.

“A lot of time, the payment of fines is also prohibitive, especially with people who are of limited resources, which they’re going to be after being released from prison,” Quezada said.

Donna Leone Hamm, a retired lower court judge and founder of the nonprofit organization Middle Ground Prison Reform, also sees voting as a bridge for felons to rejoin society.

“I can’t think of a better way for people to learn how to appropriately change the world and change what you don’t like than to vote and to know that your vote counts,” she said.

Hamm said she understands that voting may not be the top priority for a newly released prisoner.

“Still, being allowed to register to vote and to participate in democracy is a way of demonstrating to an inmate that you have paid your debt and we accept you back into the process,” she said.

* * *

Alessandra Soler, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said felon disenfranchisement is the “antithesis to rehabilitation.”

“We need to change the law so (voting restoration) can be automatic so once people complete their probation, once they’re no longer in the custody of the Department of Corrections, their voting rights should be automatically restored,” she said.

Soler said voting restoration shouldn’t be contingent on the complete payment of fines and restitution.

“We’re not saying people shouldn’t pay their obligations. All we’re saying is it shouldn’t be tied to the restoration of their voting rights,” she said. “I think it’s important once people served their time it should be automatic.”

HB 2132 was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee but had yet to receive a hearing.

Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow incarcerated felons to vote from prison. Some states allow voting while on parole, others while on probation.

“This isn’t just about fairness for those who are released from prison,” Mr. Holder said. “It’s about who we are as a nation. It’s about confronting, with clear eyes and in frank terms, disparities and divisions that are unworthy of the greatest justice system the world has ever known.”

* * *

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and a possible presidential candidate, has endorsed his state’s effort to give felons the right to vote. He has also joined Mr. Holder in calling for reducing the prison population and an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes.

“His vocal support for restoring voting rights for former inmates shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines,” Mr. Holder said of Mr. Paul.

AG Holder is the first attorney general to advocate repealing voting bans. Laws banning felons from the voting booth disproportionately affect minorities. African-Americans represent more than a third of the estimated 5.8 million people who are prohibited from voting.

The New York Times editorialzes today, 6 Million Americans Without a Voice:

The right to vote is the foundation of any democracy, yet nearly six million Americans are denied that right, in many cases for life, because they have been convicted of a crime. Some states disenfranchise more than 7 percent of their adult citizens.

* * *

State laws that disenfranchise people who have served their time “defy the principles — of accountability and rehabilitation — that guide our criminal justice policies,” Mr. Holder said in urging state lawmakers to repeal them. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

* * *

In recent years, many states have made it easier to regain the right to vote after a conviction, either through legislation or by executive action. But a handful of states, particularly in the South, continue to be guided by the ghosts of the post-Civil War era, when disenfranchisement laws were aimed at newly freed blacks. The brunt of today’s laws that prohibit felons from voting still falls disproportionately on minorities, who make up more than one-third of those affected. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, more than one in five African-Americans cannot vote because of a conviction.

Despite some progress, the United States remains an extreme outlier in allowing lifetime voting bans. Most industrialized nations allow all nonincarcerated people to vote, and many even allow voting in prison.

Adding insult to injury, felon disenfranchisement laws — which are explicitly permitted by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution — are devoid of both logic and supporting evidence. They undermine the citizenship of people who have paid their debt to society, and possibly at a cost to public safety. As Mr. Holder pointed out, a study by a parole commission in Florida found that formerly incarcerated people banned from voting were three times as likely to re-offend as those who were allowed to vote.

Mass disenfranchisement also has serious political consequences. According to a 2002 study, disenfranchisement laws may have determined the outcome of seven Senate races — and thus control of the Senate throughout the 1990s — and a presidential election. While George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in 2000, more than 800,000 Floridians with criminal records were barred from voting.

Regardless of which party might benefit most at the polls, repealing felon disenfranchisement laws is in the interest of upholding American ideals. And it has increasing bipartisan support; Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, Republicans who have promoted criminal-justice reform on a larger scale, are also pushing to scale back or end these laws. Even after someone has completed a sentence, Senator Paul said in September, “the punishment and stigma continues for the rest of their life, harming their families and hampering their ability to re-enter society.”

Mr. Paul is wise to focus on the importance of re-entry, since 95 percent of incarcerated people are eventually released. The restoration of the right to vote should be automatic, as soon as a person is released from prison. There is no good reason to keep punishing people who have served their time by denying them the most fundamental democratic right.

It may be the only thing that Rand Paul has ever been right about.

UPDATE: The Phoenix New Times posts on Martín J. Quezad's bill as well.  Arizona Democrat's Bill Would Automatically Restore Voting Rights to Felons.

One response to “Time for the restoration of ex-felon voting rights

  1. Seems like another avenue which should be pursued is to back off on what we call a felony. I’m sure there are some relatively minor crimes which are currently called felonies which should be labeled misdemeanors or put into some other category.
    There was a good discussion of this issue on Ray Suarez’s show on Al Jazerra America yesterday (2-12-2014).