Pubdate: Thu, 01 Jun 2006
Source: USA Today (US)
Page: 3A
Copyright: 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Charisse Jones, USA TODAY
Note: From MAP: A sidebar table "Voting Restrictions in Each State" 
is at
Cited: The Sentencing Project
Bookmark: (Crime Policy - United States)


Could 'Send Message' to Other States

Andres Idarraga is a sophomore at Brown University in Providence 
studying comparative literature and economics. He dreams of putting 
his education to good use and one day casting a ballot. But he will 
be 58 before he can legally vote in his home state for the first time.

That's because Idarraga, 28, spent about six years in prison for drug 
and gun possession. Under current Rhode Island law, convicted felons 
can't vote until they have completed parole and probation, a date 30 
years away for Idarraga. So he is speaking out to support a ballot 
initiative in November that would let felons vote after they leave 
prison. Its passage would "send a message that we're willing to 
embrace you, to afford second chances, instead of every step along 
the way putting up roadblocks," he says.

Rhode Island is one of several states where lawmakers and advocacy 
groups are working to change laws that deny many felons the right to vote.

An estimated 5.3 million people cannot vote because of a felony 
conviction, says Ryan King, policy analyst for the Sentencing 
Project, a research group that favors changes in prison and 
sentencing rules. Thirty-six states deny that right to felons while 
they're on parole, and 31 of them also bar voting by felons on probation.

King and other advocates of changing those rules say the restrictions 
punish people who have served their time and disproportionately 
affect the poor and people of color.

"In states where there's 20% to 30% of African-Americans who are 
prohibited from voting, that's a significant portion of the 
population not being represented by their state or federal 
legislators," King says.

Some prohibitions against felons voting are being eased:

Nebraska passed a law in March automatically restoring voting rights 
to felons two years after they complete their sentences, including 
probation and parole. The state previously had a lifetime ban.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack last year signed an executive order 
automatically restoring voting rights to felons who have completed 
their sentences, including probation or parole, or received early release.

Coalitions of former inmates, faith-based organizations and civil 
rights groups are registering voters and lobbying election officials 
and lawmakers in Rhode Island, Kentucky and other states.

Some lawmakers believe the restrictions should stay in place.

"I don't believe we need to have a voting bloc that comes out of 
prison angry at the sheriff's department ... and angry at the 
prosecutor's office," says Tennessee state Rep. Gerald McCormick, a 
Chattanooga Republican. "I don't think it's right to have them on the 
same level as people who've paid their taxes and played by the rules."

McCormick sponsored a bill that would have barred anyone convicted of 
a felony on or after July 1 from voting. That legislation died while 
another measure, which makes it simpler for some felons to regain 
their voting rights, passed this year.

Christopher Uggen, a criminologist and sociology professor at the 
University of Minnesota, says that "once people start voting, they're 
quite a bit less likely to commit new crimes." He adds that while 
programs such as work release carry risk, "I think we can clearly say 
that there's no threat to public safety by permitting prisoners and 
felons to vote."

Concerns that some people were unfairly blocked from voting in 
Florida during the 2000 presidential election and other close races 
since then have fueled efforts to overturn laws that bar felons from 
voting, King says. The laws have led to 1.4 million black men, or 
13%, being unable to vote, more than five times the national average, 
the Sentencing Project says.

"Particularly in the South, these laws were part of the old Jim Crow 
package," says Monifa Bandele, field director of the Right to Vote 
Campaign, a national coalition helping felons regain voting rights.

The Rhode Island Family Life Center, which helps former inmates and 
their families, is one of several groups distributing literature on 
college campuses and registering people to vote with the goal of 
getting the state referendum approved.

In Kentucky, state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw says that an appeal by labor 
groups, the NAACP and others prompted him to introduce a bill this 
year that sought to amend the state constitution and allow felons to 
vote after serving their time and paying all fines. The bill failed, 
but he plans to reintroduce it next year. "I see it as the right 
thing to do," says Crenshaw, a Democrat from Lexington. "After 
they've paid their debt, they should ... have the rights everyone else has."

A 2005 survey of New York state's county election boards found that 
about half did not know that felons had the right to vote while on 
probation or were asking for documents that were not required, says 
Catherine Weiss, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the 
Brennan Center for Justice.

"We don't know how many people were turned away by these two 
problems," says Weiss, whose center helped conduct the survey. "But 
there were potentially thousands." In May, New York election 
officials held a session reiterating the rules, says Lee Daghlian, 
spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections.

Idarraga admits that voting was not the first thing on his mind when 
he was released from prison in June 2004. "You have to establish 
yourself," he says. "Right after that, I knew education and voting 
and being responsible to the community were extremely pressing issues 
for myself." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake