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Disenfranchisement News: ACLU invests $5M in Florida campaign to restore voting rights

September 07, 2017
ACLU commits millions to help put voting rights referendum on Florida's 2018 ballot, judge says Alabama does not have to inform voters about new voting rights law, and more in Disenfranchisement News.

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ACLU invests $5M in Florida campaign to restore voting rights for people with felony records

The American Civil Liberties Union is committing at least $5 million to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s campaign to put a voting rights referendum on the 2018 ballot. The ballot measure would automatically restore voting rights to most individuals upon completion of their prison, probation or parole sentence. The state requires 766,200 valid signatures (or 8 percent of the voter turnout in the last presidential election) to get an initiative on the ballot, but activists are shooting for one million by December 31st to ensure they have enough valid signatures. If the referendum garners enough signatures and is placed on the 2018 ballot, it will need support from 60 percent of voters to pass.

Judge says Alabama does not have to inform voters about new voting rights law

A federal judge recently denied the Campaign Legal Center’s request to force the state to educate residents about a new law that would restore voting rights to tens of thousands of people with felony records who had previously been disenfranchised. In May, Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill that established for the first time a definitive list of crimes of “moral turpitude,” those that would result in a loss of voting rights. After the new law passed, Secretary of State John Merrill said his office would not spend state resources to help those previously disenfranchised understand that they may now be eligible to vote. The Campaign Legal Center filed suit to force the state to educate and notify voters, including automatically reinstating voting rights to those who were ineligible to vote during the last two years. But the judge ruled that the state only has the obligation to inform its county registrars.

In an interview with Think Progress after the ruling, Merrill said that anyone who really wants to vote will try multiple times to register and will not give up just because they were denied in the past. Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center, responded to Merrill’s comment saying, “The law has been problematic and has disenfranchised felons for decades, so the common sense expectation would not be to expect things to change…Even if they were to think to try again, the way they would think to do that is to go on the secretary of state’s website and look at the voter registration form. But if it hasn’t changed, which it hasn’t, then they would have no reason to believe that they can try [again].”

Felony Disenfranchisement is a Feminist Issue

Although the majority of Americans disenfranchised due to a felony conviction are men, restoring their voting rights is a feminist issue, according to a recent article in Bustle. Over six million Americans are barred from voting due to a felony conviction, or 1 of every 40 adults. In 2004, it was estimated that nearly 800,000 women were prohibited from voting due to a felony conviction. That number has likely increased along with the prison population. 

Even women without a felony conviction are adversely affected by their loved ones’ inability to vote, say Melynda Price and Emily Beaulieu of the University of Kentucky and Bridgett King of Auburn University. Their research found “lower inclinations to vote among individuals who know more people with felony convictions” as well as “lower voter turnout in precincts with more individuals who have been disenfranchised due to felony convictions.” This finding is particularly significant in the African American community, which is disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and felony disenfranchisement laws. Black women often support intersectional policies that benefit marginalized communities and other groups that a majority, white male electorate may not consider. “If you think of feminism as the belief in the fundamental equality of men and women, then any industry that is actively working to perpetuate inequality should be problematic for feminists,” says Beaulieu.

It is difficult to estimate the full impact felony disenfranchisement laws have on elections, and by extension, on policy, but research suggests that people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction are more likely to vote Democratic— which can often mean voting for a more progressive, pro-women agenda. “I think the biggest potential impact [of restoring felons’ voting rights] would be changes to the individuals who are elected,” said King. “You might then see a reversal in the number of state legislatures that are implementing policies to limit options for women’s reproductive health.” 

Kenya allows people in prison to vote for president

For the first time ever, Kenya allowed incarcerated people to vote in this year’s presidential election. (The 2017 presidential election results have since been overturned by the Supreme Court). The issue started gaining traction in 2010 when the country held a referendum on a new constitution and people in prison petitioned and won the right to vote on it. Then in 2013, a Kenyan legal aid foundation, Kituo Cha Sheria, started training people in prison to become paralegals. After their experience voting on the constitutional referendum in 2010, some of the new paralegals decided they wanted to try to vote during the 2013 presidential election too. “They had read the constitution and saw that there was nothing that stopped them from voting,” says John Mwariri, a legal officer at Kituo Cha Sheria. “If you look at the law, it is very clear that every citizen has the right to vote.” Kituo Cha Sheria filed a petition on behalf of the incarcerated paralegals and won. They missed the registration deadline for the 2013 election, so this year’s election was the first time people in prison were allowed to vote.

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Incarcerated people at Kamiti Maximum Prison in Kenya wait to vote. Source: PRI.org

“I’m very glad to see that they can exercise their constitutional right,” says Henry Kising’u, the officer in charge at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. “They also feel that they are being treated as human and as citizens of this country. Voting is an exercise that makes you feel like you belong and that you are respected.” Kising’u says he is already planning improvements to help get more people registered before the next election.

 
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