At the age of 18, every American citizen is free to exercise his or her right to vote, as guaranteed by the Constitution. However, more than five million Americans in 48 states are denied access to this right due to an array of legislation barring former felons from the polls. This week, three states made headlines with starkly different takes on the voting rights of former felons. From an excited former felon who voted for the first time on Tuesday to a Secretary of State who hopes to restrict the voting rights of all felons, the question of who gets to exercise their Constitutional rights is at the center of an expanding debate.
Studies have shown that controversial voter ID laws disenfranchise citizens in low income and minority communities and felon voting rights restrictions fall heavily upon those same constituencies. According to criminal justice policy group, the Sentencing Project, “this fundamental obstacle to participation in democratic life is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in an estimated 13% of Black men unable to vote.” These aspects of the Hosemann-supported bill would seem to indicate that it is an attempt to legalize and extend voter suppression policies in the state, as decision-makers seek to craft an electorate to their specifications rather than allow it to reflect the overall make-up of Mississippi’s citizens.
Not only does the patchwork of felon disenfranchisement policies across the 50 states hurt former felons, they also have an impact on their surrounding communities. The right to vote helps build a sense of community, thus reducing the harmful impact on low-income and minorities communities where a disproportionately high number of individuals are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. This sentiment was shared by a former prisoner who got to vote for the first time Tuesday in a story posted on AlterNet.
“This election is bringing out apathetic voters and first-time voters, and making both groups feel invested in the future of their country,” wrote Andres Idarraga, one of 15,000 former Rhode Islanders with a felony conviction who recently had his voting rights restored. “I am so proud to be one of them.”
While reinstating voting rights is an important step in fostering a healthy, representative democracy, educating former offenders regarding restoration procedures is key in reaching that goal, as exemplified by recent work in Alabama.
“Onetime criminal and founder of a ministry called The Ordinary People Society,” Rev. Kenneth Glasgow had been helping people restore their voting rights for years but only recently discovered that some of the 250,000 disenfranchised Alabamans were actually eligible to vote. Glasgow's experience highlights the secrecy surrounding this aspect of Alabama. Until Friday, the Secretary of State’s website wrongfully stated all felons are ineligible to register and vote.
Alabama’s state constitution denies voting rights to only those who committed a felony involving “moral turpitude.” Therefore, “those who have committed other felonies — like marijuana possession or drunken driving — can cast ballots even if they are still in prison, according to the state attorney general.” In 2003, a statute passed making it easier for “some felons to regain voting rights,” which was strongly opposed by Republicans “'because felons don't tend to vote Republican,'” chairman of the state Republican Party, Marty Connors said. It is estimated that at least 3,000 of the 29,000 inmates and thousands more on parole are eligible to vote.
Glasgow, who has registered more than 500 people in county jails, notes how including disenfranchised people in the electorate changes the terms of public policy debate. “There would be a lot of difference in our legislators, our elected officials and our presidents that we’ve had,” Glasgow said. “It would definitely change the political spectrum of Alabama.”
Connors’ statement is an explicit example of the partisan analysis behind the positions of elected officials on laws dealing with who is and is not eligible to vote. Rather than focusing on upholding the right of every citizen to exercise this foundational right of democracy, thereby allowing maximum participation in addressing the issues that affect people’s everyday lives, lawmakers seek to use the government itself to shape the electorate for partisan advantage.
Currently, Maine and Vermont are the only states where felony convictions do not affect voter eligibility
As former felons in Alabama and Rhode Island voice their desire to take part in the civic life of their communities and country – a situation that only strengthens American democracy – officials and lawmakers in Mississippi are finding ways to turn a citizen’s Constitutional right into a privilege reserved only for those who fit certain profiles. Excluding citizens from the most basic right of a representative democracy undermines communal bonds and weakens our civic society.
Project Vote is currently monitoring bills related to felon voting rights in six states at www.ElectionLegislation.org