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Restoring Democracy: Felon and Youth Voting Rights

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

Two historically disenfranchised groups – former felons and young people - made headlines this week for assiduously struggling to restore their voting rights, a measure that both groups argue is necessary in order for them to have a voice in the nation’s future come November 4.

While seemingly unrelated groups, both former felons and teenagers have found themselves disenfranchised in Florida and Maryland, respectively, and both groups have worked (or are in the process of) restoring their voting rights. The question now is will they be registered in time to decide who will run the country?

Although recent elections show that young people are countering their “apathetic” stereotype, studies show they are still heavily underrepresented in the general electorate. Between 2002 and 2006, voter turnout among 18-29 year olds increased nearly twice the rate of the entire electorate, breaking a cycle of “declining electoral participation” since 1982, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning

In November 2006, about half (51%) of the voting eligible population under 30 were registered, according to this Project Vote report. However, just half of them actually voted. To put it into perspective, if young people voted at the rate of 30-64 year olds, eight million more would have voted.

Knowing young people are more politically inclined today, but are not turning out to vote, creating barriers to their participation is nonsensical. That may have been the reaction of a Maryland high school senior when her voter registration card was rejected in December. Seventeen-year-old Sarah Boltuck “along with her father and a sympathetic state senator, persuaded Maryland's top legal minds to restore the right of suffrage to at least 50,000 teens who will turn 18 between the Feb. 12 primary and the Nov. 4 election,” t

Boltuck challenged the state elections board and attorney general's office, pointing out that Maryland was one of nine states to allow 17-year-olds vote in primaries as long as they turn 18 by the general election. The Maryland State Board of Elections “quietly halted the practices in December 2006 in response to a state court ruling” that required all voters to be 18 in both primaries and general elections.

“Despite what adults may think, 17-year-olds are not only ready to vote but are extremely passionate about the entire election,” said Natalie Franke, who responded to the state's change of law by helping create a Facebook group (“I'll be 18, so why can't I vote in my primary election”), which gathered more than 300 members.

“People just really want their voices heard,” Boltuck said.

On Dec. 20, the state election board moved to restore the voting rights. The deadline to register was Tuesday.

About five million Americans, or one in 40 adults, have “currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of felony conviction,” according to the Sentencing Project. More than two million are ex-offenders who have completed their sentences. In the 2004 presidential elections, an estimated 960,000 ex-felons were blocked from voting in Florida due to a law that permanently disenfranchised all felons at the time.

Last year, Florida Governor Charlie Crist amended state law to restore the civil rights of former felons, particularly voting rights. However, after decades of disenfranchisement, the demand from former felons wanting their rights restored is overwhelming the system, raising the question of whether or not people will be able to get on the rolls before November, according to National Public Radio's Greg Allen.

While 45,000 non-violent felons had their voting rights restored, there is a backlog of at least 130,000 waiting for their cases to be reviewed. Some are being told it will be several months or a year before being considered, Allen reported. Currently, workshops hosted by state, local and non-profit agencies, including Florida ACLU's Voting Rights Project are successfully helping former felons learn how to restore their civil rights, with as many as 1,000 people showing up last year, hoping to register to vote.

“You should be able to have a right to voice your opinion about who's going to run you country and who's going to set the rules for you,” said one workshop attendee, “Voting is very important in my eyes.”

As both stories illustrate, disenfranchisement silences the voices of citizens eager for the opportunity to take part in the civic life of their community and the country as a whole. Disenfranchising otherwise eligible voters is counterproductive to the notion that a democracy should represent all its citizens. The health of our democracy depends on the active participation of all its citizens and we should be finding ways to encourage this participation rather than shutting it out..

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