January 24, 2012
(The Sentencing Project)
Kentucky: Challenging state’s disenfranchisement laws
New York: Legislative maps redrawn to account for prison population
National: Santorum and Romney debate felony disenfranchisement
National: CNN opens up discussion of felony disenfranchisement
National: Washington Post Commentary supporting voting rights
National: Prison ministry leader supports Democracy Restoration Act
International: Lessons from Ireland’s first election with enfranchised prisoners
Challenging state’s disenfranchisement laws
The Richmond Register reports on attempts to reform Kentucky’s felony disenfranchisement laws. Kentucky is one of only four states that permanently disenfranchises persons convicted of felonies, with severe racial impacts: 7 percent of the state’s population is African-American, but one in four African-American adults is disenfranchised.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) has been carrying out voting rights education and helping formerly incarcerated persons reintegrate into society. “We require ex-felons to pay taxes and comply with the laws enacted by their legislators when they return to their communities,” says KFTC’s website.
State Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, is sponsoring House Bill 70, an amendment to the state constitution that “will allow persons convicted of a felony other than treason, intentional killing, a sex crime or bribery the right to vote after the completion of probation, parole or sentence.” The bill has been passed by the Democratic–controlled House the past three years but has been defeated each time in the Republican–controlled Senate.
Legislative maps redrawn to account for prison population
City Limits details New York’s recent changes to voting districts. Last month, state lawmakers changed the law so that incarcerated persons are now counted in their hometown in the census, as opposed to the town in which they are incarcerated. There are approximately 58,000 people incarcerated in New York’s state prisons, roughly half of them from the New York City metropolitan area. Previously, all were considered “constituents” of rural, mainly white areas of upstate New York. Despite these reforms, people convicted of felonies who are either incarcerated or are on parole are barred from voting.
Santorum and Romney debate felony disenfranchisement
During the Fox News/Wall Street Journal-hosted Republican presidential debate leading up to the January 21st South Carolina primary, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum questioned former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on his stance regarding felony disenfranchisement. Santorum confronted Romney after a super PAC supporting Romney aired an ad accusing Santorum of voting to allow incarcerated persons to vote. After clarifying that he had voted to allow formerly incarcerated persons to vote once they had completed their sentences, Santorum asked Romney if he believed people who had served their time should have their voting rights restored. Romney avoided the question, but Santorum pressed on: “This is Martin Luther King Day. This is a huge deal in the African-American community, because we have very high rates of incarceration, disproportionately high rates, particularly with drug crimes, in the African-American community.”
CNN opens up discussion of felony disenfranchisement
In response to the discussion of felony disenfranchisement at the Republican presidential debate, CNN posted an article on the issue, including a poll for voting on disenfranchisement. While many states have reformed their felony disenfranchisement laws in recent years, in 2011 Iowa and Florida tightened their restrictions on voting rights. According to Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, “It’s really the first time in a while we have seen significant opposition against restoring rights.” Mauer also pointed out that disenfranchising people who commit crimes is historically tied to racial discrimination: “At the same time states were adopting poll taxes, they were also tailoring disenfranchisement laws with the intent of disenfranchising black male voters.”
Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity argues that felony disenfranchisement is a concern of criminal justice, not race: "...there are a certain minimum objectives of responsibility and loyalty and trustworthiness” that society requires of people who want to participate in democracy.
Washington Post Commentary supporting voting rights
An editorial in the Washington Post criticized presidential candidate Mitt Romney for his belief that persons convicted of violent crimes should not have their voting rights restored. “Prolonging this punishment even after an inmate has paid his debt to society and earned the right to freedom is as unjust as it unwise, preventing individuals from having a full stake and a full voice in the community and its leadership.”
In an op-ed commentary in the Washington Post, Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and former special counsel to President Richard Nixon, also argues that public policy should help reintegrate former offenders into society rather than demonizing them for political advantage. He points out that restoring the right to vote costs taxpayers nothing but means a great deal to those released from prison.
Prison ministry leader supports Democracy Restoration Act
In an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Dr. H. David Schuringa, the leader of CrossroadBible Ministry, registered his support for the federal Democracy Restoration Act. The Act, recently introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), would extend the right to vote in federal elections – even if the state bars them from voting in state elections – to all formerly incarcerated persons, including those on probation and parole.
Dr. Schuringa argues that giving formerly incarcerated persons the right to vote will help them reintegrate into their communities and that it is essential to empower them with this responsibility. From a practical perspective, even those who think the criminal justice system is too lenient should recognize that once the criminal justice system decides that a person is ready to return to society, “the best course of action is to make re-entry successful.”
Lessons from Ireland’s first election with enfranchised prisoners
An article by Cormac Behan, "Still Entitled to Our Say: Prisoners' Perspectives on Politics," appearing in the Howard Journal, discusses Ireland’s first election in which prisoners were allowed to vote in 2007. Behan found low levels of both registration and voting: only 14 percent of those eligible registered to vote, but almost all of those who registered did vote. His research found “disillusionment with civic society and a deep disconnection from government, politicians and the political system in general.”
Behan argues that if prisoners are given the right to vote they must be given the same opportunity to participate in elections as those on the outside. Behan also contends that Ireland’s experience can serve to assist other countries, in particular the UK, as they prepare to enfranchise prisoners for future elections. He concludes that, "Unless there is greater political and civic engagement, the near universal welcome for enfranchisement might be dissipated, and the intent of enfranchisement - inclusion - could be lost in the reality of marginalisation and possibly further exclusion."