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: http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/caltoday.html

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.