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April 10, 2011

Disenfranchisement News

Florida: Civil Rights Groups Say New Restrictions Violate the Voting Rights Act

Alaska: "Rights" of Passage

Nevada: Legislators Considering Disenfranchisement Laws

National: Call for Ex-Offender Voting Rights

Florida: Civil Rights Groups Say New Restrictions Violate the Voting Rights Act

In March, Governor Rick Scott and other Cabinet-level officials voted to revise state rules enacted four years ago that made it easier for ex-offenders to regain the right to vote, The Washington Post reports.  Now, non-violent offenders must wait five years after the completion of their sentence to apply for the chance of civil rights restoration.

Three civil rights organizations—the NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Advancement Project—in response to the State Board’s decision, sent a letter to Scott and his cabinet, saying that the changes must be submitted to the federal government, according to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, The Broward Palm Beach New Times reports.
“Section 5 serves as our democracy’s checkpoint, requiring Florida to submit all proposed voting changes to the U.S. Department of Justice or federal court to ensure that they do not discriminate against minority voters,” said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Erika Wood, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, argues in the Huffington Post that Governor Rick Scott’s new clemency rules ignore a broad consensus among law enforcement and criminal justice professionals that allowing people to vote upon reentry encourages participation in civic life and motivates law-abiding behavior.
A commentary in The Cleveland Leader contends that the Florida policy could impact the 2012 election.  “The unseemly haste and lack of transparency suggests clearly that this was politics disguised as public policy,” said Howard Simon of the Florida ACLU.

In March, Governor Rick Scott and other Cabinet-level officials voted to revise state rules enacted four years ago that made it easier for ex-offenders to regain the right to vote, The Washington Post reports.  Now, non-violent offenders must wait five years after the completion of their sentence to apply for the chance of civil rights restoration.

Three civil rights organizations—the NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Advancement Project—in response to the State Board’s decision, sent a letter to Scott and his cabinet, saying that the changes must be submitted to the federal government, according to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, The Broward Palm Beach New Times reports.

“Section 5 serves as our democracy’s checkpoint, requiring Florida to submit all proposed voting changes to the U.S. Department of Justice or federal court to ensure that they do not discriminate against minority voters,” said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Erika Wood, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, argues in the Huffington Post that Governor Rick Scott’s new clemency rules ignore a broad consensus among law enforcement and criminal justice professionals that allowing people to vote upon reentry encourages participation in civic life and motivates law-abiding behavior.

A commentary in The Cleveland Leader contends that the Florida policy could impact the 2012 election. “The unseemly haste and lack of transparency suggests clearly that this was politics disguised as public policy,” said Howard Simon of the Florida ACLU.

 

Alaska: "Rights" of Passage

In Anchorage, New Life Development, an organization that provides resettlement services for people coming out of drug treatment, homelessness and prison, hosted a prom to celebrate three women who are completing their probation and parole, The Anchorage Press reports.

“In this organization, from the president down, the only person who has not been in prison is my wife,” said Kelvin Lee, founder and president of New Life Development.  "New Life was started out of my experience. I've been to prison. I spent 15 years in the place.”

The prom queen, Heather Williams, 41, spent three years in prison.  She lost her right to vote until she completed her probation and parole.

Describing voting for the first time after having her rights restored, Williams remembers, "It was awesome, I felt like a productive citizen, like I can do this normal, like everyone else."  “I’m able to go down and vote and give my input [now], which is awesome because I think there are some things going on in the community that I think I should be involved in,” says Williams.

Fourteen states allow ex-offenders to vote as soon as they are released from prison, a policy that would be established in Alaska under SB7, a bill filed by Alaska State Senator Bettye Davis.

“As long as they have served their jail time, they ought to have the right to vote, so that’s why I keep introducing [the legislation],” Davis said.  “We count them for everything else, when we do the census they are counted, so why don’t they have the right to vote?”

 

Nevada: Legislators Considering Disenfranchisement Laws

Members of the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations considered Assembly Bill 301 on March 22, which would simplify Nevada’s current laws on voter disenfranchisement, according to a press release from the ACLU of Nevada.

Nevada’s voter disenfranchisement policy bars individuals convicted of felonies from voting until they complete their sentences and have their rights restored.  According to the ACLU, of the 43,500 Nevadans disenfranchised under this policy, almost half have completed their sentences but remain unable to vote.  

Voter disenfranchisement in Nevada disproportionately affects communities of color: African Americans account for 29% of all disenfranchised voters and 12.4% of all African Americans in Nevada are barred from voting due to felony convictions.

AB301 would automatically restore voting rights to all Nevadans who have completed a felony prison sentence, probation or parole.  It would also educate elections employees and ex-offenders about their restored rights.  “Voting is a fundamental right, protected by more constitutional amendments than any other right we enjoy as Americans,” says Rebecca Gasca, Legislative and Policy Director at the ACLU of Nevada.

 

National: Call for Ex-Offender Voting Rights

In a recent opinion piece in Death and Taxes Magazine, Andrew Belonsky argues for national reform of laws that disenfranchise ex-offenders, pointing to ACLU estimates that 13% of black men are unable to vote.  The differing legislation in each state, according to Belonsky, creates a “patchwork that disenfranchises an estimated 5.3 million men and women, 4 million of whom have been released from prison, according to the ACLU.”

Belonsky refers to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Committee that criticizes electoral restrictions in the U.S.  In the 2006 report, the committee writes, “[We are] concerned that about five million citizens cannot vote due to a felony conviction, and that this practice has significant racial implications.”  

Belonsky also addresses arguments from opponents of reform.  “Congress simply does not have the constitutional authority to force states to restore the voting rights of convicted felons, said Hans von Spakovsky, a former Bush Justice Department official now at the Heritage Foundation.  Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell made a similar argument in 2002, saying that “States have a significant interest in reserving the vote for those who have abided by the social contract that forms the foundation of representative democracy.”

In response to arguments from reform opponents, Belonsky contends that the conversation transcends partisanship.  Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, describes these arguments as nothing more than a “character test” for citizens which “precludes honest mistakes.”  “There may be some partisan issues, yes, but it seems unseemly to make this partisan, because the matter is about justice.  It’s an injustice, not a partisan issue,” Mauer said.

Issue Area(s): Sentencing Policy, Felony Disenfranchisement
State(s): Alaska, Florida, Nevada