October 26, 2012
(The Sentencing Project)
California: Voter Registration in Jail
Voter Registration in Jail
Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi of the County of San Francisco has registered some 400 inmates to vote this year, and believes that voting “engenders a sense of responsibility and inclusion” among the people in his jail. Mirkarimi says that he is “committed to breaking down the barriers to anyone who wants to exercise their right to vote.” The Sheriff's Department Prisoner Legal Services program and the Department of Elections have registered thousands in the last five elections, and are making strides to make San Francisco the leader in jail voter registration in California.
Florida Disenfranchisement Laws Leave Many Without Vote
Florida has some of the harshest felony disenfranchisement laws nationwide, imposing strict limits, such as no automatic restoration of voting rights, at least a five-year-waiting period, and a time-consuming application process. The Tallahassee Democrat writes in an editorial that the current “policy leads to a wholesale denial of that privilege,” and the system needs to be overhauled. The editorial argues for a change in the Clemency Board’s restoration application process, which since Governor Rick Scott took office, has approved only 255 applications.
Black Men from Georgia Vote at Lower Rate
Aaron Gould Sheinin of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that despite a record number of African-Americans voting in 2008, black men vote at a sharply lower rate than other groups. According to statistics from the Census Bureau and the Georgia Secretary of State, 63 percent of eligible black men in Georgia are registered to vote, compared to 76 percent of black women and 75 percent of whites. Of those registered to vote, 70 percent of black men actually cast a ballot in the 2008 general election, compared to 80 percent of black women, 78 percent of white women and 76 percent of white men.
Sheinin explains the low turnout rate due to a feeling of insignificance and lack of efficacy in casting a single vote, the gap in educational attainment between black men and black women, and the disproportionately high incarceration rate among black men; he also notes that many individuals with felony convictions simply do not know that they can register to vote after completing their sentences. The feeling of futility in voting is perpetuated by being surrounded by others who feel the same way, along with laws passed by Georgia and other states that require state-issued photo identification which discourage voting among African-American men.
Litigation Filed to Clarify Voting Rights
The Council on Crime and Justice, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit criminal justice research and advocacy organization has filed an action with the Minnesota Supreme Court asking to clarify the right to vote for individuals who have had their guilt withheld by the court on a felony charge. A withholding of guilt is often the result of a stay of adjudication on a felony sentence, typically in cases that involve drug charges or first-time offenders where the felony conviction may be removed upon the completion of probation. In Minnesota, individuals lose the right to vote while serving their felony sentence. In filing an action, the organization hopes to resolve the question of whether an individual who has received a stay and thus has not actually yet been convicted of a felony, retains the right to vote.
Assessing the Impact of North Carolina Disenfranchisement Laws
The Daily Tar Heel, a publication of the University of North Carolina, reports on the extent to which felony disenfranchisement will impact the election this year. Although individuals in North Carolina charged with a felony have their voting rights automatically restored upon completion of their sentence, including parole and probation, nearly 82,000 North Carolinians remain disenfranchised, and more than half of those are African Americans. Considering that Obama won North Carolina in 2008 by just about 14,000 votes, this shutting out of individuals leaves one questioning the legitimacy of a “truly representative democracy.”
Hip-Hop Artists and others Educate Voters
In preparation for the upcoming election, NewsOne has provided a list of answers to a set of commonly asked questions about voting rights. The list provides voters with resources to become educated on what they need to know before casting their ballot, such as state policies on voter ID guidelines and on the voting rights of citizens with criminal records.
Education on voting rights is also coming from more unconventional sources as well: hip-hop artist 2 Chainz has stepped forward in a video as a representative of Respect My Vote!, a voter mobilization campaign, to encourage people to research their right to vote. 2 Chainz, who himself has a felony conviction, points out that having a felony conviction does not necessarily bar one from ever voting again, and urges people to check their particular state’s rules.
Joining 2 Chainz, another celebrity has emerged as a spokesperson for the automatic restitution of voting rights upon satisfying the conditions of a felony conviction. Speaking from experience, actor Charles Dutton, the star of the 1990s TV series "Roc,” testified at a recent Florida rally that registering to vote is a “parcel of rediscovering your own humanity.”
In an interview with the Bay State Banner, formerly disenfranchised citizen Walter Lomax attests to the sense of involvement he feels in voting. After spending 40 years in a Maryland prison, Lomax says that he feels like “a part in the process” in being able to vote. While Maryland has automatically restored the right to vote for men and women who have served their time, paid all fines, and satisfied all parole and probation requirements since 2007, not all states follow this practice.
Bennett Barbour of Virginia, for example, will not be voting this election season despite being exonerated for a wrongful 1978 rape conviction based on DNA evidence. Although Barbour was fully exonerated of the rape conviction, he still has several less-serious felony convictions on his record. In Virginia, individuals with a felony conviction have their voting rights suspended indefinitely, and must petition the governor for rights restoration. Although Barbour had mistakenly received a voter registration application in the mail that led him to believe he would be able to vote, the deadline to submit a petition to the governor has passed. Barbour will not be able to vote on November 6, and with his failing health, it is not clear if he will ever have the chance.
Hasan Zarif, also of Virginia, will be voting for the first time this year. In an interview with the BBC, Zarif explains why voting is important, and how it can help individuals who struggle to reintegrate and become useful members of society. Zarif’s voting rights were restored in 2007 by then Governor Tim Kaine in recognition of his efforts as an ordained minister to help rehabilitate others.
Bryan Lee Miller’s recent article in Punishment & Society confirms this sentiment of voting as a cornerstone of reintegration. According to his findings from interviewing 54 individuals with felony convictions in Florida, a significant number of them see the loss of voting rights as posing an obstacle to successful reentry into society.