Monday, March 22, 2010

New York Times Editorial on Ex-Offenders' Right to Vote and the DRA

Ex-Offenders and the Vote - New York Times Editorial - Published: March 22, 2010

Millions of ex-offenders who have been released from prison are denied the right to vote. That undercuts efforts to reintegrate former prisoners into mainstream society. And it goes against one of democracy's most fundamental principles: that governments should rule with the consent of the governed.

Congress held hearings last week on a bill, the Democracy Restoration Act, that would allow released ex-felons to vote in federal elections. It would also require the states, which administer elections, to give them appropriate notice that this right has been restored.

Voting rights are largely set by state law, and many states prohibit people who have been convicted of crimes from voting in state and federal elections.

Currently, about four million Americans who have been released from prison are disenfranchised in federal elections by laws barring people with felony convictions from voting.

Many of the laws disenfranchising former criminals date back to the post-Civil War era and were used to prevent freed slaves from voting. These laws still have a significant racial impact. About 13 percent of black men in this country are denied the right to vote by criminal disenfranchisement laws, more than seven times the rate for the population as a whole.

There is no good reason to deny former prisoners the vote. Once they are back in the community - paying taxes, working, raising families - they have the same concerns as other voters, and they should have the same say in who represents them.

Disenfranchisement laws also work against efforts to help released prisoners turn their lives around. Denying the vote to ex-offenders, who have paid their debt, continues to brand them as criminals, setting them apart from the society they should be rejoining.

Although elections are generally considered state matters, the federal government has a proud tradition of enacting laws, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when states wrongly deprive some of their citizens of the franchise. For reasons of both principle and sensible social policy, Congress should step in and give ex-offenders the right to vote.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

National News: ACLU Response to Yesterday's House Hearing on Voting Rights for Ex-Offenders

Democracy Restoration Act Needed To Restore Fundamental Civil Rights, Says ACLU

A federal House Judiciary Subcommittee held a hearing in Washington D.C. yesterday on restoring voting rights in federal elections to millions of Americans who have been disfranchised because of criminal convictions. The American Civil Liberties Union commends the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties for holding the hearing, and submitted a written statement to leaders in the House to pass the Democracy Restoration Act, H.R. 3335, a bill that would restore one of the most fundamental rights – the right to vote – to millions of disfranchised Americans.

“Nearly four million people in America are working, paying taxes, and raising families in our communities, yet they are unable to cast a ballot,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The strength of America’s democracy relies on the civic involvement of its citizens, and the Democracy Restoration Act would ensure that all citizens who are not incarcerated can head to the polls to have their voices heard.”

The Democracy Restoration Act would restore voting rights in federal elections to millions of Americans who have been released from prison, ensure that probationers never lose their right to vote in federal elections and notify people about their right to vote in federal elections. The uniform federal standard in this bill would eliminate confusion for citizens and election administration officials alike due to variations in state law. Several law enforcement officials, members of the faith community and civil rights and legal organizations have spoken out in support of this legislation.

“By denying citizens the right to vote because of a criminal conviction, the government endorses a system that expects citizens to contribute to the community, but bars them from participating in the democratic process,” said Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Thankfully, the Jim Crow era in which most of these voting policies originated is long gone – but its impact sadly continues. It’s time that the polls opened their doors to allow all citizens in our communities the chance have their voices heard in the political process. The restoration of this basic civil right is long overdue.”

States have vastly different approaches to permitting citizens with criminal convictions to vote. Some states permanently disfranchise some, but not all, citizens with felony convictions, while others allow voting after a sentence is completed or after release from prison. Two states, Virginia and Kentucky, permanently disfranchise citizens with felony convictions unless the state approves individual rights restoration. Two other states, Maine and Vermont, allow all persons with felony convictions to vote, even while incarcerated. Other states fall somewhere in between. Unfortunately, there has been widespread confusion about the proper administration of state laws that has contributed to the disfranchisement of even eligible citizens.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee’s hearing on the Democracy Restoration Act can be streamed live at:

The ACLU statement submitted to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in support of the Democracy Restoration Act (HR 3335) is available online.

Monday, March 15, 2010

National News: March 16 House Subcommittee to Hold Hearing on Ex-Offender Voting Rights

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties will hold a hearing on March 16, 2010 on H.R. 3335, the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009 (DRA). The ACLU will be submitting a written statement in support of the DRA.

For more information on what the American Civil Liberties Union is doing nationally to restore voting rights to ex-offenders, visit the ACLU's website.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Should Felons Be Allowed to Vote? Yes Says Conservative Waukesha Blogger

Reposted from the Wigderson Library & Pub blog and published on January 14, 2010 in the Waukesha Freeman opinion page. Wigderson has been maintaining his conservative blog on local and state politics since 2004 and has been a guest commentator on greater Milwaukee radio and television shows.

Should felons be allowed to vote?
We’re in another election cycle, and I’m in training. I am asking everyone I know about the candidates, talking to the professionals, reading the Web sites, and getting antsy waiting for the first campaign finance reports. It is a fun time to be a political writer.

Unfortunately, for far too many of us, elections are just another day on the calendar. Worse, they are just days that remind them that while society pretends these people should be among us, they are really secondclass citizens.

Over 42,000 Wisconsinites will not be allowed to vote this spring. They are not illegal aliens. They are not underage. They are not in prison.

They are people who were convicted of felonies, but are now free. If, as a condition of their release, they remain under the state’s supervision, such as probation or parole, they are not eligible to vote. They are free in most respects, but not in the most fundamental way.

In the state Legislature right now is a bill that would grant these freed felons the right to vote in Wisconsin, the same right in at least 18 other states. Supporters of the bill are trying to round up the necessary votes to win.

It should not be that difficult. After all, the Democrats are in control of both legislative chambers. But there are some Democrats who fear what their Republican opponents will do with this issue in October and November.

Some Republican legislators, too, are willing to give the idea a chance. But they have legitimate concerns about whether it is proper to allow felons to vote, even if they are not in state custody.

From a practical point of view, we need to ask ourselves if it’s really worth it to prosecute someone for doing what we tell the rest of our citizens is the responsible thing to do.

The state of Wisconsin spent $22 million on a voter database. Trying to match the list to the list of released felons ineligible to vote proved nearly impossible, with election officials resorting to unreliable paper lists to try to keep felons from voting.

If someone is actually caught, the case is then referred to the district attorney for prosecution. At a time when the state is cutting back on staff in district attorney offices, do we really want them to put this as a priority? Or would we rather have them spend more time prosecuting real criminals?

Yes, I can hear the critics already. “But it’s vote fraud. Of course the DAs should make it a priority.”

Is it really vote fraud? Fraud would imply an attempt to deceive for personal gain. Our situation, that of a felon trying to be a responsible member of society by casting a ballot, to gain a stake in the direction of our society, is hardly fraud.

Fraud would be the alleged stuffing of the voter rolls by groups like ACORN. Fraud would be the cases where someone might vote two or three times. These are actions that diminish the legitimate votes and harm democracy.

Asking a felon to vote does not diminish legitimate votes. Asking someone who is no longer incarcerated by the state to vote does not harm democracy. Asking a felon to vote only makes that person a better, more responsible citizen.

We know that in those states where we can measure the progress of felons that do vote they are half as likely to re-offend. We can argue the cause and effect, but there is a relationship, and we would be fools not to recognize it and take advantage.

Democrats in the legislature are debating whether they have the votes to pass the voting rights bill. Admittedly, the timing is terrible, as the first prisoners are coming out now under the early release program. Nobody wants to be seen as soft on crime.

However, it appears that they are close to having enough support to put the bill on the legislative agenda. If that happens, Wisconsin Republicans should remember 14 Republican governors have already allowed this change in their states. Republicans can support the change in the law here, too.

James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Felon Disfranchisement is Voting Rights Violation - Appeals Court Says Justice System "Infected" With Racism

There is news in the area of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people. On January 5th, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that felon disfranchisement is a direct violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The court case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, overturned previous court decisions on barring ex-felons from voting as judges said that the vast racial disparities in the criminal justice system in the State of Washington were a significant, institutional barrier to the right to vote for people of color.

The ACLU filed an amicus brief in the case because in the state of Washington, as well as in Wisconsin and around the country, taking away a citizen’s right to vote based on a past conviction has a racially discriminatory effect in a system that locks up a disproportionate number of minorities.

The court found among many other things that the state of Washington's criminal justice system was "infected" with racial discrimination. That’s a strong statement. The numbers of disproportionate minority incarceration don’t lie: In Washington, three percent of the population is African American, but 29% of their offenders are black. In Wisconsin, around five percent of our population is African American while 39% of our offenders are black.

Worst case scenarios are in Kentucky and Virginia where people never get their right to vote back, even after finishing their parole and probation. The ACLU of Virginia was among the organizations that demonstrated this week and called for an executive order to end the discriminatory policy.

The reasons for disproportionate minority incarceration are complicated, but denying ex-felons the right to vote is un-American and anti-democratic. Plain and simple. You can read the court’s opinion and you can find the ACLU amicus brief online. The ruling got some coverage in the Seattle Times and in the Seattle PI.

Our Wisconsin state legislature will start its January session on the 19th and it is a good time to remind them about how important this issue is for voting rights in our state. Call your state legislator today and remind them why the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration Act needs to be passed immediately. If you would like to volunteer for this issue, contact the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Cross-posted with the ACLU of Wisconsin's Cap City Liberty blog