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Disenfranchisement News: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets

December 20, 2016
NAACP LDF and The Sentencing Project release new felony disenfranchisement brief, Florida Supreme Court to review voting rights amendment, and more in our latest Disenfranchisement News.

Disenfranchisement News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and The Sentencing Project have issued Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets, reporting on the racially discriminatory and ever-growing problem of felony disenfranchisement. Free the Vote highlights:

  • Felony disenfranchisement laws have a disproportionate impact on African Americans at the state level. In Florida, for example, more people with felony convictions are disenfranchised than in any other state, with black disenfranchisement rates exceeding a fifth (21%) of the adult black voting age population. Similar data comes out of other states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
  • Following the historic and substantial participation of people of color in the 2008 and 2012 elections, felony disenfranchisement laws that curb voting power remain a barrier to expanding America’s voting population. These laws discourage future generations from exercising the learned behavior of voting and receiving the benefits of having their voices reflected in the political process.
  • Prison-based gerrymandering exacerbates the negative effects of felony disenfranchisement by counting incarcerated people as residents of largely white rural areas where prisons are predominately located.  The racial disparities in incarceration thus result in greater political influence and increased economic resources for the largely white rural areas, and a corresponding loss of resources to the urban communities from which incarcerated people of color generally reside.

LDF and The Sentencing Project aim to not only ameliorate felony disfranchisement laws, but also to eradicate them. “By extending the right to vote to people in prison and with criminal records, we can both build a more inclusive democracy and make our communities safer, said Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project.

Men convicted of sex offenses at Texas treatment center sue for their votes to be counted

Sixty-six men, convicted of sex offenses and seeking treatment at the Billy Clayton civil commitment center, are challenging an Early Voting Ballot Board judge’s decision to refuse to count their absentee ballots in the November election. Texas law allows individuals with felony convictions to vote after they have completed their prison, probation and/or parole sentence.

The fight first began during the primaries, when county officials advised the men to vote by mail. However, records show that none of the votes were counted. The Texas Civil Commitment Center then came to an agreement with county officials to allow the men to vote in a polling place on Election Day or via absentee ballot claiming the “disabled” exemption. “It can reasonably be argued that a person who has been clinically assessed … to the point where the individual is civilly committed and is unable to leave the commitment facility without being accompanied is disabled for purposes of voting by mail,” Caroline Geppert, a staff attorney in the Elections Division, wrote in an email to the civil commitment agency. The decision to vote in person was nixed after a local judge said it would upset residents for the men to come into town, and might even incite violence.

The Secretary of State’s Office signed off on the men voting by mail ballots. However, on November 17th, the men received notice that their mailed ballots had been rejected by the Early Voting Ballot Board. “They didn’t want us going out into their community, so they made us vote by mail, and now they’re denying us the right to vote at all,” said Clarence Brown, one of the men seeking treatment at the Billy Clayton Center. The men said they plan to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate their case as a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Florida Supreme Court to review voting rights amendment for November 2018 ballot

The Florida Supreme Court will review a proposed constitutional amendment, backed by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, to restore voting rights to individuals upon completion of their prison, probation or parole sentence. If the Court approves the amendment and Floridians for a Fair Democracy can gather enough signatures, the amendment can go on the November 2018 ballot.

A financial cost analysis is required for any change to the state Constitution. The Financial Impact Estimating Conference said the amendment could result in increased costs for the state and local governments due to more people registering to vote. However, the ACLU says the amendment would actually be a cost saving measure. “We think it is a substantial cost saving because there is an entire mechanism in place to keep felons from voting, including probation officers, clerks, paperwork, and then the office that reviews clemency, all that would shrink dramatically,” said Howard Simon,  American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Director.

The Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on March 7th, 2017.

Initiative aims to remove Nebraska’s two- year waiting period for rights restoration

Shakur Abdullah, who spent more than four decades in prison, launched the Justus15Vote Initiative to help speed up the voting rights restoration process for individuals with felony convictions. Nebraskans with felony convictions currently have to wait two years after their prison, probation and/or parole sentence to have their rights restored. In a recent Justus15 meeting, advocates along with State Sen.-elect Justin Wayne of Omaha discussed a bill that would remove the waiting period. Some meeting attendees felt that the bill didn’t go far enough and wished the initiative would follow the example of Maine and Vermont, which allow individuals in prison to vote. Abdullah said he hoped to see more changes in the future, but said removing the waiting period is an important first step.

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