With voter suppression a hot-button issue of Election 2012, a coalition of civil rights advocates and prison reformers is stepping up its campaign to restore voting rights to almost 6 million ex-offenders.
Despite reforms over the past decades, advocates say the number of Americans disenfranchised by state laws barring ex-prisoners from voting has grown—with a disproportionate impact on people of color.
“When you talk about the right to vote, you’re not just talking about enfranchising an individual,” says ex-offender Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
“Every day, in minority communities, you have people getting arrested … As that individual loses [his or her] right to vote, that community loses another voice, to the point that that community becomes insignificant.”
Meade’s coalition is fighting to overturn a Florida law passed last year that denies automatic restoration of voting rights to those who’ve served their time.
The law forces ex-offenders into “second-class citizenship,” says Meade, a third-year law student at Florida International University School of Law, and a leading voice in the national effort for ex-offender re-enfranchisement.
The Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project estimates that the number of non-voting, formerly incarcerated individuals is now 5.85 million, a roughly 9 per cent surge since 2004.
Although some 23 states over the last decade have restored some or all voting rights—in some cases, even helping ex-prisoners register to vote—“the numbers are still awful,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.
Voting-age, formerly incarcerated African Americans are disproportionately affected.
According to the Sentencing Project, 7.7 percent of all African Americans, or one in every 13, have lost the right to vote because of state bans against ex-prisoner voting. In contrast, 2 percent of all non-blacks are ineligible to vote because of laws disqualifying ex-prisoners at the ballot box.
The number of disenfranchised partly reflects the numbers of Americans—most of them individuals of color—who have served time behind bars. But it also mirrors the wide range of approaches states have taken on whether prisoners or ex-prisoners should be granted access to the ballot.
According to the non-partisan, not-for-profit ProCon.org, convicted persons in 12 states can permanently lose their right to vote.
Florida, Virginia, Nevada and Iowa—all key battleground states in this year's presidential race--are included among the 12.
In the remainder, however, voting privileges are granted according to a broad range of conditions. In two states—Maine and Vermont—prisoners are allowed to file absentee ballots. Other states allow re-enfranchisement after prison sentences are served.
And still others only grant the right to vote after prisoners complete their probation.
Although such reforms are regarded by advocates as a welcome re-examination of prisoner and ex-prisoner disenfranchisement laws that have been on the books for over a century, there have also been some notable retreats.
The 2011 Florida legislation repealed a 2007 statute that automatically restored voting privileges when a prisoner completed his or her sentence, including terms of probation. Iowa took a similar step last year.
Defending Voting Bans
And even as the movement for re-enfranchisment gains ground, state laws denying ex-prisoners the automatic restoration of the vote have their defenders.
Among them is Roger Clegg, a deputy assistant attorney general for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
“We have certain minimum objectives and standards: responsibility and commitment to the law, and trustworthiness,” says Clegg, president and CEO of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank on race and ethnicity issues in Washington, D.C.
“If you’re not willing to follow the law, you can’t claim the right to make the law for everybody else. When you vote that’s what you do.”
Clegg, who has testified against automatic re-enfranchisement before Congress, is co-author of “The Case Against Felon Voting,” published in 2006 by the Federalist Society, a conservative think tank.
He opposes automatic restoration of voting rights to ex-offenders, arguing that they should fully prove that they’ve “turned over a new leaf” before voting rights are restored.
But opponents are also stepping up the fight.
Against the backdrop of this year’s presidential contest—one tinged by race and class—the NAACP has spearheaded the national campaign against disenfranchisement.
It launched the campaign with a press conference in Florida, whose 1.5 million non-voting, formerly incarcerated residents represent one of the highest tallies of disenfranchised ex-offenders in any single state.
The re-enfranchisement campaign is buttressed by polls suggesting wide national support for eliminating voting bans for ex-prisoners. .
Also at play is the partisan opinion that former prisoners, especially African Americans, are deemed more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.
Even so, governors from both parties have signed bans against ex-prisoner voting into law, “even if they didn’t necessarily lead the charge,” the Sentencing Project’s Mauer says.
The United States lags behind much of the industrialized world in its refusal to fully enfranchise ex-prisoners, according to Jessie Allen, a University of Pittsburg law professor and attorney who has helped bring several thus far unsuccessful state lawsuits aimed at granting ex-prisoners full voting rights.
“The U.S. is a real hot wire,” Allen says. “In most countries, including European countries and Canada, the issue is whether to allow people in prison to vote. Very few places disenfranchise people beyond the term of incarceration.”
Allen is author of “Documentary Disenfranchisement,” published last year by Tulane Law Review. Her research has been cited by, among others, the Sentencing Project, whose website includes an interactive state-by-state map of disenfranchisement rates.
“It doesn’t mean the (ex-prisoner) voter turnout rates are necessarily high simply because laws in Vermont and Maine say prisoners can vote absentee,” she says. ”On paper, what it looks like is less enfranchising than what actually happens.
“In New York, they could supposedly regain the right to vote when they finished their term, including parole. In fact, at least until a few years ago, New York City Board of Election (workers) turned down applications from people unless they could produce (proof) on paper that they’d finished their time.
“Those documents do not exist. Things are not always so straightforward.”
Advocates note that expanding voting rights for the formerly incarcerated does not guarantee that they will either register or vote.
In 2007, during Ireland’s first election that enfranchised former felons, just 14 percent registered to vote. Researchers linked that comparative lack of voter participation to civic disenchantment.
With 350,000 potentially voting-eligible ex-prisoners in Virginia, the Advancement Project conducted a first-ever endeavor to help that group register ahead of the state’s Oct. 15 deadline to cast a ballot this November.
The demand was “varied, though we’ve gotten a good response,” says Edgardo Cortes, director of Virginia Voting Rights Campaign for that nationwide organization, also based in Washington.
“One of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to get to the people who need the assistance,” he adds. “It’s not like you can go into one place in the state and say, ‘Hey, here are all the people who need help right here.’
“Also, there’s a lot of stigma attached to saying you’ve been in prison. A lot of people are hesitant to talk about it publicly.”
Virginia’s non-violent offenders must wait two years after release before applying to become a registered voter, and violent offenders can do so after five years.
Cortes praises Virginia’s Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly, a Republican, for allocating extra staff to an effort that has resulted in what he says are 90 percent of non-violent ex-prisoners and 80 percent of violent ex-prisoners being cleared to register so far.
However, the Advancement Project has not calculated the total number of applicants, he says.
Those new registrations notwithstanding, the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights project still lists Virginia as “a permanent disenfranchisement state, since people have to apply individually to the governor to have their rights restored,” says Molly Kaplan, an ACLU spokeswoman. “Otherwise, they lose the right to vote for life.”
“I hope we get to the point where we can say, ‘We’ve got a big victory in Virginia, let’s move on to the next state,’” Cortes says. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
So is Florida’s Meade, who cannot practice law in his home state under current rules.
A former crack addict, he was sentenced to 15 years on a weapons charge in 2001, though it was later overturned. After plea bargaining, his sentence was reduced to three years, resulting in his immediate release seven years ago.
Even Meade recognizes that for those he calls “returning citizens,” voting is not always the first priority.
“It’s ‘I need a job, a place to live, to be able to put a roof over my family’s head and food on the table,’ he says. “This is something that goes way, way beyond just being able to vote.”