Voting Rights: Addressing Challenges and Correcting Wrongs
With a major election year upon us and daily newscasts showcasing the high and low polls of an ever changing list of Republicans vying for their shot to run against President Barack Obama, we should take a look at another component of the election – the voting process.
More important – who, in fact, has voting rights is a major issue as there are a number of efforts taking place to restore voting rights for felons.
According to Project Vote, the United States is the only country that permits the permanent disenfranchisement of felons even after the completion of their sentences.
That means that voting rights for felons in many cases are denied for good. Voting privileges in this country has been a gradual process when you consider that African Americans were “technically” included in the right to vote in 1868 with the passage of the 14th Amendment.
However, any civil rights worker in the South during the 1960s can attest that this right was not truly enforced until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
Women got the right to cast their votes in 1920 after the 19th Amendment was passed and in 1971, Congress lowered the legal voting age to 18.
Voting rights for felons is much more complex and feelings are mixed, but more hopeful regarding the need for restoration.
“We are a criminalized nation to an exceeding degree. So, in my humble opinion, all persons should be able to vote,” states Harry Hamilton, Esq. “Though poorly administered, we have a death penalty and disenfranchisement is not necessary. In many cases, the legal representation for a number of these felons was flawed and so my statement is of course tempered with the inherent inequities that exist in our criminal justice system.”
A coalition of over 30 civil rights and community advocacy organizations including Project Vote, Brennan Center for Justice, NAACP, Women With A Vision Inc., ACLU, South Asian Americans Leading Together and others recently signed a letter to Congress in support of the Democracy Restoration Act, which is sponsored by Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland and Representative John Conyers of Michigan.
If passed, it would provide a clear process that would return voting rights to felons who have served their time and have returned to being active members of the community.
The letter states that over five million Americans have been denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction in their past.
Depending on what state one lives also determines what voting rights felons can recoup.
The need for a national model is clear and leaving it up to the individual states to make the determination has already proven ineffective, particularly for African Americans.
As the letter states, “Criminal disenfranchisement laws are rooted in the Jim Crow era. They were enacted alongside poll taxes and literacy tests and were intended to keep African Americans from voting.”
According to Terry Allen, a Re-Entry Advocate and Award winning culture critic,“I live in the very backyard of the local District Attorney, Craig Watkins, whose efforts in this area earned him the nickname – the Exonerator. He went to our local commissioners and was awarded funding to create a conviction-integrity unit to review old cases. Over 180 were reviewed and reinvestigated which led to at least 19 prisoners who were exonerated and freed.”
He stated that there is as much justice in clearing the names of the innocent as there is in rushing to judgment to find someone guilty. This is exceptional because few states have programs similar to this or district attorneys who are willing to admit, despite volumes of supportive evidence that these cases should be reviewed.
We should all champion efforts to alleviate the penalty of disenfranchisement in cases where the underlying convictions are suspect, especially given the knowledge that the criminal justice system is flawed. With the inconsistencies from state to state in the current process for voting rights restoration, the voting rights for felons are often left in the hands of misguided or ill-equipped officials who bring their own biases to the forefront.
Voting is a privilege and an extension of one’s citizenship and freedom to choose. The Democracy Restoration Act, along with the national standard that it will establish, restores that privilege and choice and it should be supported.
While the debate continues, it is clear that there is a diverse community that is seeking voting rights for felons who have done their time and, in some cases, should not have been in prison from the start.
Maybe, it is about time that we get it right starting with Congress. What is your vote?
Mereday is a contributing writer for Regal Magazine, a publication dedicated to the African American community.