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Kaivon Williams Joe Cottle ENC1102 2/13/13 The Voting Rights of Felons Voting is a civil right that we value as Americans and as human beings. It is important that we have a voice regarding the leaders of our cities, states, and countries. Our ancestors fought to secure this right, and we must cherish it. But at what point, if ever, can the right to vote be taken away from a person? Can they be taken, and kept away from someone who made a serious mistake in their past and has paid their debt to society? Some claim that felons are entitled to voting rights as citizens, while others claim that the proper decision making abilities of felons have been compromised by their past. Felon disenfranchisement has been a debated topic since the 18th century, dating back to the times of slavery, and is still very prevalent today. It has been debated by legislators, civil liberties groups, individual organizations, and politicians. The question on whether or not convicted felons should be allowed to vote still has yet to be fully answered. Our national population consists of all types of people, including former felons. “Based on demographic life tables, it is estimated that approximately 4 million former prisoners and 11.7 million former felons live and work among us every day” (Uggen, n.d.). “Nationally, an estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions” (The Sentencing Project, 2012). This large number of


Williams 2 ineligible voters diminishes the true voice expressed by the people, and could greatly affect election decisions were they allowed to vote. The Constitution has two amendments that deal with voting. The fifteenth amendment states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”(National Archives, n.d.). The nineteenth amendment states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (National Archives, n.d.). These laws guarantee voting rights for women and that no voting discrimination will occur, but there is no explicit federal law that deals with the voting rights of felons. “There are clauses granting equal rights based upon race and religion, and equal voting rights based upon gender, but there is nothing that prevents voting restrictions based upon other criteria” (Latham, n.d.). Each individual state comes up with its own laws. In 13 states and DC, felons are ineligible to vote only while serving a prison sentence. In 25 states, prisoners and people under supervision (probation/parole) are ineligible to vote. In eight states, all felons in prison and under supervision, as well as certain ex-offenders, are ineligible to vote. In Kentucky and Virginia all felons and ex-offenders are permanently ineligible to vote, absent a pardon. In Maine and Vermont, felons do not lose their right to vote; even prisoners can vote. (Felon voting Rights, 2012) The question on whether felons should be able to vote has been fiercely argued. Both sides present very valid arguments for their position. Some states believe that felons should not have the right to vote. “The reason typically involves the notion that people have displayed very


Williams 3 bad judgment by committing a felony, by definition of a serious crime…they have also proven themselves unfit to choose the nation’s leaders” (Holding, 2006). Roger Clegg of the Annenberg Center states that “Society should not ignore people's criminal records, even after a sentence has been served. We don't allow felons to carry firearms or serve on federal juries. Barring felons from voting is one way society sends the message that committing a serious crime has serious consequences” (Clegg, n.d.). The majority of people believe that felons should have the right to vote. Many organizations believe this as well. The major organizations promoting the reinstitution of voting rights for felons are The Human Rights Watch, The Sentencing Project, and The American Civil Liberties Union. Jamie Fellner, associate counsel at the New York-based Human Rights Watch stated, “These people have paid their debt to society. “It makes no sense to turn them into political outcasts… No other country in the world takes away the right to vote for life” (Felon laws, 1998). Christina Grier of FairVote.org spoke out against felon disenfranchisement. Taking away their voting abilities shuts them out of the democracy for which this country stands, and has actually been shown to increase recidivism, or a reoccurrence of

crime…by

disallowing citizens with felony convictions the chance to vote, we equate them to juvenile individuals who cannot effectively make decisions that will add to the overall good of society, a generalization that simply is not true. (Grier, 2011) In the wake of the confusion that occurred during the 2000 presidential election, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform was held to discuss the much needed modification of current voting legislation. Felon voting rights were discussed extensively, and “the Commision


Williams 4 believes that voting rights should be restored to certain categories of felons after they have served the debt to society” (Re-Enfranchisement, 2005). Felons are often unaware of when their voting rights are restored, and the Commission called for reform on this. “States should provide information on voter registration to ex-felons who have become eligible to vote. In addition, each state’s department of corrections should automatically notify the state election office when a felon has regained eligibility to vote” (ReEnfranchisement, 2005). Restrictive felon voting laws cause racial disparities among the voting population. Minorities, who make up the majority of the felon population, are underrepresented because voting laws bar them from participating in the polls. “Banning people with felony convictions from voting significantly limits the number of African-Americans who can vote. According to the Sentencing Project, ‘1.4 million African American men, or 13% of black men, is disenfranchised, a rate seven-times the national average’” (Fairvote.org, n.d.). Constraints on felon voting laws have been causing racial disparities in voting since the nineteenth century. After ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, Virginia amended its state constitution to deny voting rights to any person convicted of a felony…Virginia like many other Southern states, was arresting and convicting former slaves at an alarming rate. Lawmakers knew that denying voting rights for all felons would disproportionately impact African Americans. (Willis, 2011) These racial disparities are still present today, and affect all minorities. State Legislators have varying opinions on felon voting laws. Wisconsin State Rep. Joe Parisi disagrees with his state’s voting law that requires felons to finish probation or parole.


Williams 5 Once you've served your time and you're released from prison, we expect you to participate in society again and we encourage you to take part in the democratic process and vote. It would save money, it would help integrate people back into society and it would make the administration of elections much smoother. (State law, 2008) Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has paved the way for rights-restoration in his state, approving the applications of about 2,000 felons. “We’re a nation of second chances, and everybody makes mistakes. But if you want to fix your problem and be a productive citizen, we want to help” (Sherfinski, 2012). Many former felons are speaking out on how they feel about felon voting laws. Sam Bonner, of St. Petersburg, Florida, voiced his opinion about the voting laws. It’s pretty devastating to think that…I want to reintegrate, I want to give back to the community, I want to be a good member of society, I want to actually contribute towards helping other people not take the same path I have, and yet, my efforts have been thwarted at every, every step of the way. (Rehabilitation, n.d.) Recently, Florida legislation had relaxed its restrictions on voting laws. “Governor Charlie Crist and two cabinet members voted to reverse decades of Florida history by automatically restoring some civil rights to tens of thousands of felons” (Bousquet, 2007). Governor Crist fully supports the reinstitution of civil rights for felons. In a meeting of the Board of Executive Clemency he stated, “Justice delayed is justice denied, and people are waiting, this is about fundamental fairness” (Bousquet, 2007). This decision re-grants felons four civil rights: to vote, serve on a jury, run for public office or apply for a professional license.


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