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800,000 Ex-Offenders Regain Voting Rights – 5.3 Million More to Go

Since 1997, an estimated 800,000 former offenders have regained their voting rights as 23 states eased or eliminated felony disenfranchisement statutes and policies, according to a recent report by The Sentencing Project. Still, only seven states – Texas, Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, Maryland, Nebraska and Connecticut – accounted for 773,000, or 96.6%, of those re-enfranchised voters. See related articles in this issue of PLN concerning recent changes in Florida’s disenfranchisement rules and a Sixth Circuit ruling in a Tennessee voting rights case.

“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,” the report found. Such public support has resulted in legislative reforms across the nation, including nine states that repealed or amended lifetime disenfranchisement laws; three states that expanded voting rights to persons on parole or probation; eight states that eased the process for people seeking to have their voting rights restored; and three states that improved data and information sharing.

Litigation efforts related to restoration of voting rights have had mixed results. In January 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Washington’s felony
disenfranchisement policies violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The panel opinion found “compelling evidence” of racial and ethnic bias in Washington’s criminal justice system resulting from the state’s disenfranchisement law. See: Farrakhan v. Gregoire, 590 F.3d 989 (9th Cir. 2010).

On October 7, 2010, however, that decision was reversed by the appellate court sitting en banc. “Because plaintiffs presented no evidence of intentional discrimination in the operation of Washington’s criminal justice system, and argue no other theory under which a Section 2 challenge might be sustained,” the Ninth Circuit concluded “that they didn’t meet their burden of showing a violation of the VRA. Accordingly, the district court didn’t err when it granted summary judgment against them.” See: Farrakhan v. Gregoire, 623 F.3d 990 (9th Cir. 2010) [PLN, May 2011, p.8].

Prisoners in Massachusetts challenged a 10-year-old state constitutional amendment that stripped them of the right to vote while incarcerated. The First Circuit held that Congress did not intend the Voting Rights Act to apply to prisoners. See: Simmons v. Galvin, 575 F.3d 24 (1st Cir. 2009). The plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court denied review on October 18, 2010.

Under South Dakota law, felons sentenced to prison are automatically removed from voter registration lists. In practice, however, state officials also removed felons who were sentenced to only probation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged that practice in federal court and the state settled, according to The Sentencing Project report.
The settlement established new procedures, required the Secretary of State to train county auditors and poll workers to protect the voting rights of felons not sentenced to prison, and recommended that the South Dakota Election Board propose policy reforms.

Despite these developments, The Sentencing Project reported that an estimated 5.3 million disenfranchised Americans were ineligible to vote in the November 2010 midterm elections. That included “nearly 4 million who reside in the 35 states that still prohibit some combination of persons on probation, parole and/or people who have completed their sentences from voting.”

Racial disparity in the impact of disenfranchisement laws continues to be a significant problem across the nation, as evidenced by the following list of the ten worst states:
This troubling trend has resulted “in one of every eight adult black males being ineligible to vote” in the United States, according to The Sentencing Project.

Copies of the report – written by the Sentencing Project’s State Advocacy Coordinator, Nicole D. Porter – are available from The Sentencing Project, 1705 DeSales Street NW, 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20036,

Source: “Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2010,” The Sentencing Project (October 2010)

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