Featured Story, Prison Stories

Voting Rights for Ex-Cons

Prisoners votingIn most states, convicted felons are not able to vote, even after they have served their time. While it’s a statistical fact that many felons recidivate, there are many who return to the world and become law abiding citizens. They have paid their debt to society and learned from their mistakes. In effect, their prison sentences rehabilitated them and they are being disenfranchised for life, due to one mistake. With an estimated 5.8 people either incarcerated or on parole, that number represents a large group of American citizens who are prohibited from voting.

Recently Attorney General Eric H. Holder urged states to repeal laws that prohibit the formerly incarcerated from voting. Holder said it is “time to fundamentally rethink laws that permanently disfranchises people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.” The call was mostly symbolic as Mr. Holder has no authority to enact these changes himself, but it was the Attorney General’s latest effort to eliminate laws that he says disproportionately keeps minorities from the polls.

An NAACP delegation and several voting rights organizations have taken up the call also and took their case for ex-offender voting rights in the United States. Appealing to an international body to help solve a domestic issue is an unusual step for us groups, signaling that efforts to address the problem through the usual domestic channels have been fruitless. “Going to the United Nations is a way for us to have the UN evaluate what the US has done to meet its obligations, from voting rights to civil rights,” Hilary Shelton, an NAACP Vice President said.

Stripping former felons of their rights to vote disenfranchises many African Americans, who are disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system, the NAACP said.

African Americans represent more than a third of the 5.8 million people who are prohibited from voting. And in certain southern states, more than one in five African-Americans have lost the right to vote. Mr. Holder said the laws stemmed from the late 1800s when states tried to keep blacks from voting. The United States is unique in the democratic world for barring people from voting in such large numbers.

“It is unwise, it is unjust and it is not in keeping with our democratic values,” Holder said. “These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.” The proposal is an extension of a broader plan Holder announced to revamp the US criminal justice system.

“Former offenders continue to face significant obstacles. Across the country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions,” Holder said. “That’s more than the individual population of 31 states.” With the drug war waning, it seems America is struggling with the fact that she has turned into incarceration nation. Finally public officials are speaking out on the issues and hopefully this will signal a change for the future.

With nearly eight percent of adult African Americans, or one out of every 13, disenfranchised more than 2.2 million African American adults can’t vote, even though 40 percent of them completed their sentences. Democracy Imprisoned, a report by the NAACP and The Sentencing Project examines the numbers and the effect on our country’s democratic process. It highlights the various processes that ex-convicts have to go through in the attempt to get their voting rights back, and in a lot of cases, it is a process filled with numerous obstacles for the disenfranchised.