Felony Disenfranchisement Reforms Restore Voting Rights to 760,000
by Mark Wilson
Since 1997, 19 states have eased felony disenfranchisement laws and policies, resulting in the restoration of voting rights to at least 760,000 people, according to The Sentencing Project (TSP).
TSP “is a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy issues.” In 1998, TSP and Human Rights Watch published Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States, detailing the nation’s far-reaching laws restricting voting rights for people with felony convictions.
In September 2008, TSP Analyst Ryan S. King authored a new report, entitled Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2008. He found that since 1997, and largely in response to the voter disenfranchisement issues exposed during the 2000 Presidential election, felony disenfranchisement issues have received significant media and high-level policy-maker attention.
According to the report, “as the public has become increasingly aware of these restrictive policies, there has been a groundswell of support for change. Public opinion surveys report that 8 in 10 Americans support voting rights for persons who have completed their sentence and nearly two-thirds support voting rights for persons on probation or parole.”
As a result, “since 1997, 19 states have amended felony disenfranchisement policies in an effort to reduce their restrictiveness and expand voter eligibility,” TSP found. Nine states either repealed or amended lifetime disenfranchisement laws; two states expanded voting rights to persons under community supervision (probation or parole); five states eased the restoration process for persons seeking to have their voting rights restored after completing their sentence; and three states improved data and information sharing.
Overall, these reforms have restored the voting rights of at least 760,000 people, according to the report.
In Iowa, for example, before 2005, anyone convicted of an “infamous crime” suffered a lifetime voting ban. A gubernatorial pardon was the exclusive mechanism for restoring voting rights. In 2005, however, Governor Tom Vilsack issued Executive Order 42, immediately restoring voting rights to all persons who had completed their sentences. “Since the order was issued, the number of disenfranchised people has been reduced by 81%, or an estimated 100,000 people,” wrote King.
Interestingly, “Texas has been incrementally reforming its felony disenfranchisement laws since 1983,” the report found. The state repealed its lifetime ban in 1983. Then, “in 1997, under Governor George W. Bush, Texas eliminated the two year waiting period and adopted the policy of automatically restoring voting rights at the completion of the sentence,” wrote King. This change “restored the right to vote to 317,000 individuals.”
Despite these reforms, the report estimated that 5 million people would still be ineligible to vote in the 2008 Presidential election, “nearly 4 million of whom reside in the 35 states that still prohibit some combination of persons on probation, parole and/or people who have completed their sentenced from voting,” observed King. In Tennessee, for example, reforms have been made to one of “the nation’s most complex and confusing disenfranchisement laws.” Yet, under current law, restoration of voting rights is contingent upon payment of all outstanding financial obligations, including child support, according to the report. “The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in February 2008 to challenge the law on the basis that it is tantamount to a poll tax,” in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We’ve reported on similar litigation in Washington State. Both suits have failed.
The TSP report observes that “the racial disparities in the criminal justice system translate into higher rates of disenfranchisement in communities of color, resulting in one of every eight adult black males being ineligible to vote.” This fact is starkly illustrated by 2004 disenfranchisement statistics. In Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska and Wyoming, for example, total disenfranchisement rates were 5.39%, 5.97%, 4.77% and 5.31%, respectively, while the percentage of disenfranchised black voters in those states was 33.98%, 23.70%, 22.7% and 20.03%, respectively. Clearly, many more reforms are necessary, but the significant and important reforms described in the report cannot be dismissed. The report, and others, are available at: The Sentencing Project, 514 Tenth Street, NW, Suite 100, Washington D.C. 20004; www.sentencingproject.org.
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