The Freedom To Vote

Dorothy Gaines is a mother, a grandmother, a former nurse technician, and a resident of Alabama. The State of Alabama will not allow her to vote. She has been locked out of the voting booth because she was once locked in prison on felony conspiracy and crack cocaine distribution convictions.

Ms. Gaines had no prior record and there was no physical evidence of any drugs found in her possession. Her felony convictions were based solely on the testimony of admitted drug dealers who received reduced sentences in exchange for naming co-conspirators. Former President Clinton granted clemency to Dorothy so she would be free from prison; but she is still not free to vote. Sadly, Dorothy Gaines is not alone.

As the result of a nation-wide labyrinth of legal technicalities and secret adjudications in closed-door decision-making processes, 1.4 million people are denied the right to vote after they have done the time for a felony conviction. They may be hardworking, tax-paying, rehabilitated offenders, but the door to democracy remains permanently locked to them unless they are able to decipher and navigate the maze of procedural requirements that stands in the way of their chances to remove the stigma of political impotence in a society that honors the power of the vote.

Joseph Hayden, a recently released New York state prisoner, put it this way: "Of all of the groups that were excluded from the franchise -- women, slaves, the illiterate, non-property holders, and convicted felons -- only one group remains disenfranchised." The disenfranchisement of citizens with convictions represents the last vestige of this historic and systematic exclusion of identifiable groups from voting. Despite lynchings, intimidation, and the threat of economic reprisals, the unfair obstacles to participation in the political process for all have largely been overcome. One barrier, however, remains: the right of persons who have paid their debt to society to participate fully in the political process by voting.

In comparing and contrasting the chaotic maze of nuances, anomalies and other peculiarities that comprise the matrix of laws in the states which fail to provide automatic restoration upon release of sentence, the search for coherent meaning underlying the various provisions is a futile one. The only constant factor appears to be the degree of difficulty built into the structure, which stymies one's incentive to even commence the restoration process.

If you live in Alabama, you may be forced to have blood drawn for the required DNA sample for the authorities. In Delaware, a psychiatric examination is required. In Florida, a former felon must demonstrate that she had no history of drug abuse even if she was an addict convicted of a drug offense. In Maryland, authorities claim they cannot restore voting rights to people with felony convictions unless they receive information regarding the person's marital history, interests, leisure time activities and the frequency of her attendance in religious activities.

Americans who have completed their criminal sentences are required to follow notice procedures to apply for the restoration of their voting rights. Notice of application for restoration must be provided to state attorneys, law enforcement officials and /or victims in the states of AL, AZ, DE, FL, KY, TN, WA, and WY. The applicant must publish her pardon petition for 30 days in the relevant MS newspaper.

In WA, the date of conviction makes a huge difference. If one is convicted on one day, a horrendous, red tape ordeal follows. If convicted of the same crime one day later, however, the person is qualified to vote automatically when his sentence has been served. In TN, the system is so convoluted and tangled that it defies explanation.

Florida requires the former felon to divulge the date of birth of his child's mother, the cause of death of his father, and the names and purposes of all organizations of which he is a member. Virginia demands three letters of reference from "reputable" people in the community and demonstration of civic responsibility. Florida refuses to grant waivers from the requirement that all fines, traffic tickets, debt and child support owed are satisfied, even when the applicant has been unable to obtain steady employment since his release from prison.

Even before embarking on this restoration process, people who have served their sentences must wait the requisite 20 years in Maryland and 7 years in Virginia before beginning the journey for re-enfranchisement, if convicted of a non-violent drug trafficking offense. Ironically, if the former felon had committed murder, rape or another violent crime, she would "only" have to wait 5 years in VA before starting the restoration process. There is no plausible rationale for the difference between the obligatory 3-year wait in Al and DE versus the 10-year wait in MD for crimes other than drugs or violence.

Advancement Project, a Washington-based public policy and legal action group, has released a report entitled "Re-enfranchisement!" which provides a comprehensive, state-by-state roadmap to the restoration processes and procedures of the 13 states currently subjected to a discretionary, non-automatic restoration process.

While the only real remedy to this senseless crazy-quilt of laws is automatic restoration across the board, there must also be an effort to hold states accountable to the provisions in the statutes that exist, by encouraging eligible persons to seek re-enfranchisement. And if former felons use the existing individual restoration procedures in an organized way that also monitors these processes that are characterized by secret adjudications, political influences, backlogs and constant delays, additional evidence to support reform is likely to result.

Nkechi Taifa is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Institute. Edward Hailes Jr. is a senior attorney at the Advancement Project. Edward Hailes can be reached at eahailes@advancementproject.org.

To read the full report go to www.advancementproject.org.

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