Recent Developments Concerning Felony Disenfranchisement
Ex-Offenders and the Vote
New York Times
March 22, 2010
Millions of ex-offenders who have been released from prison are denied the right to vote. That undercuts efforts to reintegrate former prisoners into mainstream society. And it goes against one of democracy’s most fundamental principles: that governments should rule with the consent of the governed.
Congress held hearings last week on a bill, the Democracy Restoration Act, that would allow released ex-felons to vote in federal elections. It would also require the states, which administer elections, to give them appropriate notice that this right has been restored.
Voting rights are largely set by state law, and many states prohibit people who have been convicted of crimes from voting in state and federal elections.
Currently, about four million Americans who have been released from prison are disenfranchised in federal elections by laws barring people with felony convictions from voting.
Many of the laws disenfranchising former criminals date back to the post-Civil War era and were used to prevent freed slaves from voting. These laws still have a significant racial impact. About 13 percent of black men in this country are denied the right to vote by criminal disenfranchisement laws, more than seven times the rate for the population as a whole.
There is no good reason to deny former prisoners the vote. Once they are back in the community — paying taxes, working, raising families — they have the same concerns as other voters, and they should have the same say in who represents them.
Disenfranchisement laws also work against efforts to help released prisoners turn their lives around. Denying the vote to ex-offenders, who have paid their debt, continues to brand them as criminals, setting them apart from the society they should be rejoining.
Although elections are generally considered state matters, the federal government has a proud tradition of enacting laws, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when states wrongly deprive some of their citizens of the franchise. For reasons of both principle and sensible social policy, Congress should step in and give ex-offenders the right to vote.
Voting Rights Elude Some Florida Ex-Felons, Study Says
New York Times
March 12, 2009
TALLAHASSEE, Fla.— Florida’s procedures for restoring voting rights to convicted felons are so cumbersome, bureaucratic and confusing that some ex-convicts are being denied their rights, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
Most election officials throughout the state are unsure about who can win back their voting rights, the report found.
Florida is among a handful of states that do not permit automatic restoration of rights once someone has been released from prison. In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist pushed through new procedures to speed up the process for most felons seeking voting rights. The new process does not apply to murderers and sex offenders.
More than 138,000 people had their rights restored between April 2007 and March 2009, but the A.C.L.U. said it was concerned that thousands of additional voters might not know what to do because of widespread confusion over the new eligibility rules.
The group got conflicting answers when it surveyed the offices of all 67 election supervisors in the state. Employees in six county elections offices, for example, told callers, wrongly, that someone convicted of a misdemeanor was ineligible to vote. The survey also showed that nearly half incorrectly asserted that felons needed to produce paperwork showing they had their rights restored in order to register.
“It’s very hard for anyone to know what’s going on,” said Muslima Lewis, a senior lawyer for the A.C.L.U. of Florida, who wrote the report. “The rules are convoluted and hard to understand.”
Taiwan Daniels, 28, who lives in Broward County, lost his rights after he was convicted on a cocaine charge when he was 16. He spent a year trying to get his rights restored before he succeeded in October, and called the process more “discouraging than encouraging.”
The A.C.L.U. is calling on Florida to automatically restore voting rights to hundreds of thousands of former prisoners in the state. The report also recommends waiving a requirement that a convicted felon first pay off court-ordered restitution.
Mr. Crist said Wednesday that “more can be done” to improve the process. But he said Florida was “on the right path.”
“I think we have done more in the past two years to restore the rights of former felons than we have done in the rest of the history of Florida,” Mr. Crist said.
Florida’s effort to keep felons from voting has been a flashpoint in recent years. Thousands were purged from the state’s voting rolls before the 2000 presidential election, even though there were questions about the accuracy of the list of ineligible voters.
The state scrapped plans for another purge in 2004 after newspapers pointed out flaws with the list, including that the list had virtually no Hispanics on it.
In Alabama, a Fight to Regain Voting Rights Some Felons Never Lost
New York Times
March 2, 2008
DOTHAN, Ala. — The Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, onetime criminal and founder of a ministry called The Ordinary People Society, spent years helping people with criminal records regain the right to vote in Alabama, where an estimated 250,000 people are prohibited from voting because of past criminal activity.
Then he discovered that many of them had never actually lost the right.
Because of a quirk in its Constitution, Alabama disqualifies from voting only those who have committed a “felony involving moral turpitude.” Those who have committed other felonies — like marijuana possession or drunken driving — can cast ballots even if they are still in prison, according to the state attorney general.
But it has been slow work cajoling public officials to enforce and publicize the law. Until Friday, the secretary of state’s Web site advised, incorrectly, that those with any kind of felony conviction could not register unless they had served their time and their right to vote had been restored by the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Because neither the Legislature nor the attorney general has offered a definitive list of crimes involving moral turpitude, there is no way of knowing how many inmates are eligible to vote. But state agencies generally agree that those convicted of drug possession — at least 3,000 of Alabama’s 29,000 prison inmates and thousands more on probation — are eligible. Most felons and former felons, however, assume that they have lost the right to vote.
“This is an issue that’s never come up before,” said Richard F. Allen, the commissioner of corrections. “I would think that if there were any latent feeling out there that they wanted to vote, they would have expressed it by now.”
Mr. Glasgow, who is the half-brother of a far less obscure crusader based in New York, the Rev. Al Sharpton, believes that not only do inmates and former convicts want to vote, but also that their ballots could alter the political landscape in this Republican-leaning state, adding that his group has registered more than 500 people by visiting a handful of county jails.
“There would be a lot of difference in our legislators, our elected officials and our presidents that we’ve had,” he said. “It would definitely change the political spectrum of Alabama.”
Republicans agree. They railed against a statute passed in 2003 that made it easier for some former felons to regain their voting rights by side-stepping a lengthy and backlogged pardon process.
“There’s no more anti-Republican bill than this,” said Marty Connors, the chairman of the state Republican Party, according to news reports at the time. “As frank as I can be, we’re opposed to it because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.”
In the two years after the 2003 statute took effect, more than 5,500 former felons had their rights restored, and interest in the November presidential election is running high, said Sarah Still, manager of the pardons department. In January, Ms. Still received more than 280 applications for voting rights, up from an average of 140 a month last fall.
Nationally, 5.3 million people are barred from voting because of their criminal history, according to a 2004 estimate cited by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice policy group. In the last decade, as criminals who were swept into prison during the drug war have been released and the difficulty of re-integrating them into society has become clear, at least 16 states have made it easier for former felons to vote.
But in the South, where restrictions on former convicts are among the most severe and in many cases date to Jim Crow laws, there have been fewer changes. Last Monday the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in protest of a 2006 Tennessee law that requires former convicts to pay back child support before regaining the right to vote. In Alabama, the Republican attorney general, Troy King, has proposed a constitutional amendment that would delete the moral turpitude clause, prohibiting all felons from voting.
Though he is an active Democrat, Mr. Glasgow, 42, says his main goal is not to aid his party but to help former inmates become productive members of society.
But for most of his own life he was hardly an exemplar of civic engagement. Mr. Sharpton, in his memoir, “Go and Tell Pharaoh,” says his parents’ marriage was wrecked when his father, Al Sharpton Sr., had an affair with his mother’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage, resulting in the birth of Kenneth.
By the time Kenneth was a teenager, his mother had taken him to her hometown, Dothan, Ala., where he began to get in trouble for selling drugs, became addicted to crack cocaine and did time in Alabama and Florida for armed robbery and other crimes.
It was during his longest stint in prison, nine years, that the genes of activism and oratory that run in Mr. Glasgow’s family emerged and he began to preach. When he was released in 2001, the bondsman who had repeatedly bailed him out of jail became treasurer of The Ordinary People Society and paid for Mr. Glasgow to attend seminary.
Mr. Glasgow opened a soup kitchen, held church services under a white tent and began to help former convicts like Anna Reynolds, a recovering addict, regain the right to vote — a process often made onerous by the moral-turpitude clause.
As a legal concept, moral turpitude refers to conduct that would be immoral even if it were not illegal, unlike, say, speeding. The delegates to the 1901 constitutional convention who used the term also took away voting rights for other infractions that they believed blacks were more likely to commit, like wife beating, adultery and vagrancy. In 1985 the United States Supreme Court struck down most of the law on the grounds that it was racially discriminatory, but the moral-turpitude clause remained.
Most officials in Alabama were unaware of the clause until 2005, when it came to light after a man on probation tried to vote in St. Clair County. The parole board requested clarification, and the attorney general responded with an incomplete categorization of felonies based largely on previous court decisions.
The opinion leaves a large gray area, said Ms. Still of the pardons department. It says, for example, that rape is a crime of moral turpitude and that assault is not, but offers no clarification on variations like statutory rape or assault with intent to kill.
The parole board settled on a policy of treating drug possession and drunk driving as crimes devoid of moral turpitude, but that has not put an end to the confusion, Mr. Glasgow said.
Initially Ms. Reynolds, 52, was told by the local registrar that she could not vote because of a conviction for drug possession. She applied to the parole board, which told her that it could not restore her right to vote because she had never lost it. Finally, The Ordinary People Society helped cut through the red tape.
On Feb. 5, Ms. Reynolds stood outside the public library handing out sample ballots before casting her own. “Voting, that’s part of getting back to normal life,” she said. “I’ve been out of the loop for a long time, and it was good to have help getting back into the loop.”