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October 6, 2008

Disenfranchisement News

Last minute registration efforts
Inmate voting
Alabama:
Registration Suit Ensues
National: Sen. Feingold introduces federal voting rights legislation
National: The Sentencing Project, ACLU, Brennan Center for Justice Publish Disenfranchisement Reports
National: Reader’s Digest ‘Rocks the Vote’
Florida: State fails to restore rights accurately
Illinois: For the Record, They Can Vote
New Jersey: Voting is a Must
Virginia: Governor Believes in Vote Restoration
Maryland: State Attorney Agrees with Year-old Reenfranchisement Law
Oklahoma: Confusing Law Keeps Individuals Away from Polls

Last minute registration efforts
Across the nation, advocates in many states have been working feverishly to educate individuals with felony convictions about their right to vote and assist them in registering. As many states’ registration deadlines approach this week, national, local and grassroots efforts have registered scores of individuals who were unaware of their voting rights status.

Inmate voting
Numerous jails and prisons across the U.S. were filled with voter registration applications and absentee ballots as various local campaigns promoting voting for persons in prison, where legal, neared a close. Organization volunteers visited jail and prison facilities to distribute registration applications and absentee ballots to individuals awaiting trail or otherwise eligible to vote.

Alabama: Registration Suit Ensues
The U.S. District Court has been brought in to decide whether Alabama can prohibit inmate voter registration efforts by visitors. Alabama law permits those incarcerated and formerly incarcerated to vote unless they were convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude,” according to Ballot Access, but the definition of moral turpitude remains unclear. The governor's office reports that 480 of the state's 575 felony crimes are crimes of moral turpitude, according to the Birmingham News, which include murder, robbery, rape, and certain other offenses. In the wake of Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen terminating a voter registration drive in the state prison that had aimed at assisting people who had not been convicted of a disenfranchising crime, the issue has once again taken center-stage in Alabama. The state's Administrative Office of the Courts, which argues that only 70 state crimes should result in the loss of voting rights, claims thousands of people convicted of crimes are illegally being kept from casting ballots, the Huntsville Times reported. For more coverage, read editorials from the Tuscaloosa News and the Huntsville Times.

National: Sen. Feingold introduces federal voting rights legislation
Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced SB 3640 Friday, a bill that would secure the Federal voting rights of persons who have been released from incarceration. Sen. Feingold stated the following with the bill's introduction: “Mr. President, in a democracy, no right is more important than the right to vote; in our democracy, no right has been so dearly won. This country was founded on the idea that a just government derives its power from the consent of the governed, a principle codified in the very first words of our Constitution: 'We the People of the United States.' From the Civil War through the women's suffrage movement through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through the 26th Amendment, the continuing expansion of the franchise, a broadening of who 'we the people' are, is one of our great American stories. So today I will introduce the Democracy Restoration Act of 2008. This bill will guarantee that citizens who are not incarcerated have the right to vote in Federal elections.

National: The Sentencing Project, ACLU, Brennan Center for Justice Publish Disenfranchisement Reports
The Sentencing Project released a report that found that since 1997, 19 states have amended felony disenfranchisement policies in an effort to reduce their restrictiveness and expand voter eligibility. The report, Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2008, documents a reform movement over the past eleven years that has resulted in more than 760,000 citizens having regained their right to vote. The report's release coincides with the introduction of new legislation in Congress to secure federal voting rights for nonincarcerated citizens. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice released a joint report, De Facto Disenfranchisement, which documents that felony disenfranchisement laws are only half the story: untold hundreds of thousands of eligible voters are discouraged from registering and voting because they receive incorrect or misleading information - or no information at all - from elections and criminal justice officials and voter registration forms. The ACLU also released Voting with a Criminal Record, which reports on the variety and complexity of various states’ disfranchisement policies that have effectively barred countless eligible Americans from the ballot box.

The New York Times featured a blog posted by editorial staff writer, Brent Staples, on the three recently released reports that stated: “We tend to shun people who commit crimes — not just while they do time, but quite often for the rest of their lives. We bar them from housing, jobs, and yes, we strip them of the right to vote. Through these policies, we have created a large and growing felon class that is permanently cut off from the mainstream and stuck on a treadmill that often leads right back to the prison door. Rules that bar former inmates from the polls are excessively punitive, socially alienating and inconsistent with the core principles of American democracy.” For additional coverage, click here.

National: Reader’s Digest ‘Rocks the Vote’
Reader’s Digest featured an article headlined “Jailhouse Rock (the Vote)” which stated the need to repeal disenfranchisement laws in an effort to reintegrate individuals back into society. “That reasoning goes like this: After paying their ‘debt to society,’ in the old parlance, government’s goal for these individuals—unless we want to see them back behind bars—should be nothing less than having them take their places in the fabric of American life. This entails reconnecting with their families, securing gainful employment, and becoming productive members in the social lives of their community and their nation. In the United States, implicit in this social contract is the right to vote.”

Florida: State fails to restore rights accurately
Of the 115,000 individuals with felony offenses who regained their civil rights since clemency rules were changed last year, only 9,000 have registered, according to a Tallahassee Democrat op-ed. Failures in notification efforts and appropriate follow up are to blame, Mark Schlakman states. He argues that recent efforts by Governor Crist to address the backlog are insufficient and, in order to implement sustainable reform, the state should readopt a 1975 clemency rule that made restoration virtually automatic, rather than relying on a cumbersome three-tier system.

Illinois: For the Record, They Can Vote
Following a training session for election judges that prompted eligibility questions, Journal-Star columnist Pam Adams makes an effort to clear any confusion about vote restoration laws in Illinois. She writes, “[o]nce more, for the record, the forgetful, the unknowledgeable and the ethically impaired, convicted felons can vote in Illinois. Banning felons from voting serves little purpose, especially after they've completed the sentence. They are still citizens.” Click here to read the column.

New Jersey: Voting is a Must
State Senator Ronald L. Rice writes about confusion among many residents regarding New Jersey’s disenfranchisement laws and underscores the importance of educating formerly incarcerated individuals in the Record. “[T]oday, too many people do not understand or exercise their voting rights, and as a result, entire segments of our population — and especially formerly incarcerated individuals — are being underrepresented at the polls on Election Day.” He noted the significance of voting as part of the reintegration process for people who have been incarcerated and may feel alienated from the communities to which they return. “Voting is extremely important because it provides citizens with opportunities to make a difference in their own lives. Individuals can influence government decision-making through voting. The act of voting is the single greatest thing individual cans do to take part in government and in public discussion of important policy decisions.”

Virginia: Governor Believes in Vote Restoration
Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has restored voting rights to nearly 1,500 individuals with a felony conviction this year, the Washington Times reported. Virginia, which is one of only two states that permanently disenfranchises all persons with a felony conviction, has a process by which interested parties can apply to the governor’s office to have their voting rights restored. Gov. Kaine expedited the review process for petitioners with non-violent criminal records this summer, promising that all eligible persons who had submitted a restoration application by August 1st would be processed in time to register for this November’s presidential election.

Maryland: State Attorney Agrees with Year-old Reenfranchisement Law
The Sentinel columnist Mike Sarzo agrees with Prince George’s County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey that voting rights should be restored to individuals with felony convictions. “Giving people a second chance is a bedrock principle of American society,” Sarzo stated. “Allowing people to fully integrate back into the community after serving their sentences is an important way of letting people know they still have rights when they leave prison.” Ivey expressed his support at a recent voting rights forum. In 2007, Maryland passed a law restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals who have completed their sentence. Click here to read the article.

Oklahoma: Confusing Law Keeps Individuals Away from Polls
“These unfortunate misinterpretations on a county-by-county basis, this just has to stop. We can’t afford to disenfranchise people,” ACLU of Oklahoma Legal Director C.S. Thornton was quoted as saying in the Tahlequah Daily Press. The ACLU of Oklahoma stated that individuals with felony convictions in one county were unable to register because both the applicant and the election board are unclear about the state’s laws. The article explains: “A person convicted of a felony may not register to vote for a period of time equal to the time prescribed in the judgment and sentence of the felony. In other words, someone sentenced to a five-year, suspended sentence may not register for the five years spent serving that sentence. Someone convicted of a felony and sentenced to 10 years, but paroled after serving only three, still may not register for those 10 years originally sentenced. Those who have been convicted of a felony, but who have received a deferred sentence, may register to vote, as long as they are otherwise qualified. Those who have received a full pardon – restoring them to full citizenship – may also register to vote.”

Issue Area(s): Felony Disenfranchisement
State(s): Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia