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November 14, 2012 (The Sentencing Project)

Disenfranchisement News

International: OSCE Report Critical of U.S. Disenfranchisement Policies
State: Minnesota Supreme Court Ruling Clarifies Voting Rights
National: Voter Rights Restoration Across the Nation
Voter Registration in Jails


OSCE Report Critical of U.S. Disenfranchisement Policies

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSDE/ODIHR) sent a team of observers to monitor the 2012 general elections in the United States. The observation mission assessed the implementation procedures of the election in regard to compliance with OSCE commitments and other international standards, as well as national legislation.

In its assessment of the impact of felony disenfranchisement on the elections, the OSCE’s preliminary report notes that “An estimated 5.9 million citizens were disenfranchised due to a criminal conviction, including some 2.6 million citizens who have served their sentences. This is at odds with the principle of universal suffrage and the commitment to ensure proportionality in the restriction of voting rights as enshrined in paragraphs 7.3 and 24 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document.” The report further notes that “The deprivation of the right to vote is a severe penalty and it should be proportionate to the underlying crime. In addition, once a sentence has been served, authorities should take effective measures to facilitate the restoration of voting rights.” The OSCE is expected to produce a final report on the elections in the coming months.

Minnesota Supreme Court Ruling Clarifies Voting Rights

In 2010, Enjoli Rosas pled guilty to felony possession of marijuana and was placed on five years probation. In place of accepting her guilty plea, however, the court granted a stay of adjudication, stipulating that if Rosas successfully completed her terms of probation, she would not have a conviction on her record. Although Rosas was not convicted of a felony, the Ramsey County probation office incorrectly told her that she could not vote, and that doing so would result in a new felony offense. It was then that the Council on Crime and Justice, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit criminal justice research and advocacy organization, filed an elections action with the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Although the probation office subsequently contacted Rosas to notify her that she could indeed vote, many others like Rosas may have been discouraged from voting. The Ramsey County Attorney’s office has since issued a memo clarifying that individuals with a stay of adjudication can vote, and the Minnesota Supreme Court has issued an order providing a clear and succinct statement of the law, reiterating that those not convicted of a felony may vote. An editorial in the New York Times praised the efforts of the Court, and added that all states should take steps to simplify the rights restoration process. The editorial attributes the confusion around voting rights to the “crazy quilt” of disenfranchisement and restoration policies among states, counties, cities, and towns.

Voter Rights Restoration Across the Nation

Prior to the recent election, there was a flurry of activity and news coverage of disenfranchisement around the nation. In Florida, a 2011 change in the Clemency Board’s restoration application process requires individuals to wait a period of five or seven years before applying for the restoration of their rights. Similarly, an order signed by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad reversed a 2005 policy in which individuals convicted of a felony automatically had their voting rights restored upon discharge from state supervision, leaving many uncertain about whether they can cast a ballot. Meanwhile in Virginia, Governor McDonnell’s commitment to reviewing voting rights restoration applications in a shorter time than past governors still leaves a significant tract of citizens disenfranchised. Although the Virginia Voter Restoration coalition calls McDonnell’s commitment to processing restoration applications within 60 days a “victory,” it believes that McDonnell can go farther, granting automatic rights restoration.

In Arizona, 200,000 individuals, half of whom are not in prison, were ineligible to vote in the election. While individuals convicted of one felony have their voting rights restored automatically upon completion of their sentence, those with multiple felony convictions must wait two years after completing their sentence to apply for restoration of their civil rights. In an editorial for the Huffington Post, Kabira Stokes notes that as 95% of people with felony convictions eventually do leave prison, the right to vote should be guaranteed to all returning to civil society.

Ironically, the presidential battleground states of Florida and Virginia lead the nation with the most disenfranchised individuals. Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, notes that even a few hundred votes can make the difference in a close race. Thomas Ferraro of Reuters adds, however, that while both presidential campaigns had reason to be attentive to the estimated 13.4 million individuals with felony convictions who were eligible to vote, campaigns have historically steered clear of attracting the vote of those with a criminal past.

Finally, in an essay for TimeMagazine, Noliwe M. Rooks muses on what Abraham Lincoln would think about laws denying the vote to those with felony convictions. Noting that public opinion today largely favors restoring voting rights to individuals after they have served their time, she questions why that support has not yet been transformed into political action.

Voter Registration in Jails

In some cities, however, the efforts to register jail inmates deserve applause. The District of Columbia, for example, has been making an effort to help prisoners vote for the last several years. Efforts to help those awaiting trial or serving a sentence for a misdemeanor vote has resulted in 88 men voting at the D.C. Jail this year. In Los Angeles, a two-week registration drive garnered 1,269 new voters in the county jail.  One volunteer pointed out that registering to vote in this year’s election was especially important, as the ballot posed questions that might affect inmates directly, such as the proposition to change the three strikes rule.

Civil rights icon Reverend Amos C. Brown recognized the importance of this year’s election, and with volunteers from his church, made efforts to register voters in the San Francisco area. Known in the community as a mentor and veteran of the civil rights movement, Brown’s goal is to “strengthen his community's political voice” and fight against what he perceives as “efforts to diminish that voice.” Brown is known for his extensive history in the fight for civil rights; he was just 15 when he met Martin Luther King Jr., and was arrested alongside King during a lunch-counter sit-in at a downtown Atlanta department store.

Reverend to some 3,000 individuals at the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, the Bay Area's version of King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Brown has significant influence in the area. Through his on-the-ground approach and personal appeals, he strove to keep the community engaged with this year's election by explaining the various ballot issues, and relating to voters how it was in their “best interest to vote.” He made a visit to the San Francisco County Jail in mid-October to register inmates, and cites “how many others were sacrificed trying to get people the right” to vote as his inspiration to make sure individuals cast their ballots.

Issue Area(s): Felony Disenfranchisement, Collateral Consequences