It's undemocratic to deny ex-felons the right to vote

March 08, 2006|By SASHA ABRAMSKY

Six years ago, a little-known law in Florida, one that for all practical purposes permanently denied the vote to people who had been convicted of felonies, hit the headlines: Thousands of men and women recently had been "purged" from the voter rolls because they were thought to have felony records.

After the near-tied presidential election, a debate arose: Were the "right" people disenfranchised, or had the state removed the "wrong" people from political participation through reliance on flawed databases?

In the years since, a much broader policy discussion has arisen involving a critique of the very notion of permanent disenfranchisement for felons. After all, in Florida alone, more than half a million citizens were ineligible to vote because they had been convicted of crimes.

Maryland has been at the forefront of this debate. In 2002, it ended its practice of permanently barring from voting all those who had been convicted of a felony in the state. Instead, legislators created a three-year waiting period, allowing certain categories of criminals to vote years after they had come out of prison, and off parole and probation, as long as they had paid all the restitution fees they owed their victims.

Now, Democratic Del. Salima S. Marriott of Baltimore is proposing a further reform to allow ex-cons to vote as soon as they leave prison and to mandate the state to inform prisoners of their voting rights.

Experts believe up to 150,000 men and women, more than half of whom are African-American, would become eligible to vote as a result of this change. In response, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has announced that he would veto the legislation. For many reasons, Mr. Ehrlich's response is dead wrong.

Two months before the 2004 presidential election, midway through a cross-country reporting expedition for a book I was writing on the impact of felon disenfranchisement on America's political culture, I interviewed several women in Des Moines, Iowa. They had been convicted of low-end drug crimes, had served their time and wanted nothing more than to get their lives back in order. They wanted to become full participants in the communities they lived in and to have rights as mundane as the right to vote for the school boards that governed their children's schools. Yet these women couldn't vote because Iowa made it extremely hard for felons to ever regain their voting rights.

"Before I went to prison," an ex-drug addict named Jackie told me, "I wasn't living right. I wasn't a good citizen. But during my stay, I changed. I grew. I came out wanting to be a part of my community. I feel it's a great slap in my face to not be a part of my country because I made bad choices. It's hard for me to want to be a part of my country when they're continually putting me down. If my country doesn't stand behind me, who will?"

On July 4, 2005, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, restored the right to vote to felons in his state who had successfully completed their sentences. Despite the lamentations of opponents, the sky didn't promptly cave in.

While it's true that based on demographics, the majority of ex-offenders, were they to vote, would likely vote for Democrats, at its heart this issue shouldn't be about party politics. Put simply, the mass incarceration unleashed over the past quarter-century by the twinned wars on drugs and crime has created a disenfranchisement epidemic, one that is posing a serious challenge to our understanding of democracy and to our definitions of citizenship.

Nationally, about 5 million Americans are barred from voting, several million of them ex-prisoners with the misfortune to live in states that impose extreme restrictions on their ability to participate in civic rites such as elections after they return to the community.

In many states, especially in the South, more than 5 percent of the people, and as many as one out of three black men, can't vote. In Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, numerous close election results - from mayoral races to gubernatorial, congressional and even presidential contests - have been decided by margins of less than 2 percent during a period in which huge numbers have been removed from the voter rolls. Because of large-scale disenfranchisement, it's at least debatable as to whether these results truly reflect the wishes of a majority of the adult population.

Maryland took a giant step in the right direction in 2002 when it distanced itself from the Jim Crow-era permanent disenfranchisement codes. While there is room to quibble with Ms. Mariott's bill - many reformers, for example, would be willing to countenance disenfranchisement running through a person's time on parole - the basic intent is correct.

Abolishing the waiting period would eliminate the problem of ex-cons failing to develop, in the years after their release, the habits of citizenship. Restoring the franchise to ex-cons in a timely manner is crucial if the state is serious about rapidly rehabilitating ex-prisoners and fully reintegrating them into the community.

It's crucial if the country is to live up to its democratic promise, and it's crucial because of the vastly disproportionate impact that disenfranchisement currently has on the African-American population.

Sasha Abramsky is the author of "Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House." He lives in Sacramento, Calif. His e-mail is

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