Tag Archives: disenfranchisement

A Short Note on Ex-Felon Voting Rights

26 Oct

This may be too little, too late for many, but perhaps it will be of use to people in the future, if not in this election cycle.

It’s commonly believed that all incarcerated people and all ex-felons lose their voting rights. This belief holds true even among the formerly incarcerated, elected officials, and elections clerks in states where those with past felony convictions are allowed to vote.

I once worked for a group that was active in 7 states working with incarcerated people, their families and loved ones to stop new prison building and win progressive reforms of state prisons. Among our many projects was one aimed at informing ex-offenders of their voting rights in those states where voting rights are restored post-release or post-parole.

In order to gauge how widespread the mistaken belief that those with past felony convictions always lose their voting rights is, we worked with a local group in Montana to survey elections and prison officials and elected representatives about the law. What we learned shocked us. Many, in some case most, were certain that those with past felony convictions could not vote or just didn’t know one way or another. This became the basis of a campaign to force Montana to conducted training and education of officials and to include a review of voting rights at the point when formerly incarcerated people are released to the community.

With that in mind, and a bit late in the year, here is a resource that folks may find useful. Ex-offenders can often vote. Even in conservative states like Wyoming, a contortionist act involving a five year waiting period and an application process will win you back your voting rights. It’s a struggle, but consider this: when the reform in the law that made the return of voting rights a possibility earlier this century, 28% of black men in Wyoming had permanently lost their voting rights.

Perhaps more useful to some is the fact that in Vermont and Maine, those who are incarcerated never lose their voting rights and can vote absentee while in prison.  And in New Hampshire, where you can register up to election day, and North Dakota where no registration is necessary, those with past convictions can vote. Even if they attempt to turn you away, don’t let them. Many elections officials don’t know the law. You have a chance to educate them.

While the problem of disenfranchisement of those with past convictions continues to be a crisis of democracy in this country, where those with past convictions can vote we should do whatever we can to make sure everyone understands their rights, from the voter to the elections officials to those making the laws.

Read This Book!

7 May

Today is my birthday. The passage of time has me reflecting a lot on the years behind me, especially as I’m looking down the barrel of 50.

Among the most frustrating yet inspiring experiences I’ve had over the years was the time I spent working on criminal justice reform. During those years I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention facilities, jails, prisons, and courtrooms. From that perch, the racism of the system seemed so plain as to be indisputable. Just as plain was the amazing resiliency of people caught up in the system, many of them non-violent drug offenders whose convictions as “criminals” erased their status as parents, siblings, sons and daughters.

But as close to it as I was, I always struggled for the language to describe the racism of our criminal justice system in ways that got more than a “yeah, that sucks” reaction. Now Michelle Alexander has written a book that’s changed that for me. If my birthday wish comes true, all of you will read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s just that powerful.

In just 261 six by nine inch pages, excluding end notes and index (both of which are very useful), the current paperback edition of The New Jim Crow relates the history of the drug war starting with it’s origins in the Nixon years all the way through the present.

In the present, one in 10 black males between the ages of 25 and 29 are in prison or jail, and the majority in the same age group bear the stigma of past convictions. That means they are limited in their ability to contribute financially to their families. Many are unable to live in public housing and may be separated from family members who do. Parolees are in constant jeopardy of being incarcerated again because of parole violations that include not associating with others who have been incarcerated which, I repeat for emphasis, includes an overwhelming number of their peers.Today, a black child is less likely to be raised by both parents than a child born in the age of slavery.

According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, 13% of black males lost their right to vote to felony disenfranchisement laws. In some states, as many as one in three lost their voting rights. The report predicted that if the trend continued, 40% of black men would lose their right to vote in states that disenfranchise felons.

In 2000, felony disenfranchisement in Florida very likely cost Al Gore the presidential election.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

The shame of this reality should be enough to cause a society-wide revolt. Alexander helps us to understand why we have remained largely silent by describing the way racial caste manages to morph over generations, creating a “new normal” of civility that accommodates continued racism and the structural exclusion of African Americans from democratic decision-making.

Make my birthday wish come true. Read this book. Share what you learn. Don’t let yourself be part of the “new normal” that stands in the way of true democracy for all of us.

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