Pubdate: Fri, 20 May 2016
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2016 Austin American-Statesman
Note: Letters MUST be 150 words or less
Author: Marc Mauer
Note: Mauer is the executive director of the Sentencing Project and 
the author of "Race to Incarcerate." He wrote this for


Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently restored the right to vote for 
206,000 citizens in his state, many of whom had completed their 
sentences decades ago. One of them, Terry Garrett, had struggled with 
homelessness and drug addiction, receiving multiple felony 
convictions, before turning her life around. She's now sober, a 
grandmother, and helps people facing addiction. Told that she could 
now vote, she said, "Finally, someone sees past what we did."

As the 2016 presidential race heats up, it's clear that the outcome 
will affect the course of the nation for some time to come. Yet 
nearly 6 million Americans will not be at the polls this November. 
It's not that they don't care about the outcome of the election, but 
rather, they're prohibited from voting due to a current or previous 
felony conviction.

Disenfranchisement laws trace back to the time of the founding of the 
nation, an experiment in democracy. But it was a very limited 
experiment, whereby white male property holders granted themselves 
the right to vote. Excluded from the franchise were women, 
African-Americans, poor people, illiterates and those with felony 
convictions. Over the course of two centuries all those other 
exclusions have thankfully been overturned, leaving felony 
disenfranchisement as the key remaining obstacle to full 
participation in society.

Disenfranchisement policies vary by state. Two states - Maine and 
Vermont - permit all citizens to vote, including those in prison. But 
in 48 states and the District of Columbia, individuals in prison 
cannot vote; in 34 of those states people on probation or parole also 
can't vote; and in 12 states a felony conviction can even result in a 
loss of voting rights after someone has completed a sentence.

In Florida or Kentucky, for example, an 18-year-old convicted of 
first-time felony drug possession who successfully completes a 
court-ordered treatment program is barred from voting for life. The 
only means of regaining the right to vote is by a gubernatorial 
pardon, few of which are granted.

While disenfranchisement policies have been in place for two 
centuries, their effect has expanded dramatically along with the 
growth of the prison system in recent decades. From a figure of 1.1 
million people disenfranchised in 1976, the number has grown to 5.8 
million today. Three quarters of disenfranchised individuals are not 
in prison, but are living in the community, on probation or parole or 
having completed their sentences.

The effect of these policies is distorted by the racial disparities 
in the criminal justice system. While differences in crime rates 
explain part of those disparities, black rates of incarceration are 
also affected by racial profiling, skewed law enforcement in the war 
on drugs, and socioeconomic disparities that affect access to a 
high-quality defense attorney. As a result, one in 13 
African-Americans nationally is ineligible to vote.

Disenfranchisement raises fundamental questions of democracy, but at 
current rates it may also affect electoral outcomes. In the historic 
2000 presidential election, decided by a margin of just 537 votes in 
Florida, 600,000 Floridians who had completed their sentences were 
ineligible to vote due to a past conviction. Had they been able to 
participate, it is quite possible that the outcome of that national 
election might have been changed.

But why should we permit people with felony convictions to vote? In 
part, this is what democracy is all about. Voting rights are 
determined based on citizenship, not character. If we disqualify 
someone based on a past conviction, what about someone who is openly 
racist, or a serial adulterer, or an athlete who uses steroids?

Once we open up such character considerations it becomes a very slippery slope.

Some suggest that permitting convicted offenders to vote would 
somehow create a "criminal lobby" that would vote against the 
interests of law-abiding citizens. But think about how this would 
play out in the real world. How many candidates for political office 
have run on a "pro-criminal" platform? This doesn't seem like an 
immediate threat to public safety.

There are public safety considerations to this policy, though in a 
different direction. Think about a person coming home from a 
five-year prison sentence. He is most likely to succeed if he can get 
a job, a place to live, and establish strong ties to the community. 
But if we send a message to him that he's just a "second-class 
citizen" and can't vote, that can only create barriers to his 
integration. By extending the right to vote to people who have made 
mistakes, we can both build a more inclusive democracy and make our 
communities safer.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom