Ex-Felons Fight To Regain Political Voice
Since the 2000 election debacle, an increasing number of politicians and activists have been fighting to end the legally sanctioned disenfranchisement of somewhere in the region of five million Americans. The disenfranchised are men and women impacted by a variety of state laws banning those with felony convictions from casting ballots at elections. After years without a political voice, these individuals are now at the forefront of a growing battle, coordinated by the New York-based Right to Vote Campaign, framed by the emotive language of civil rights.
Twelve years ago, Yvonne Kennedy, a Democratic member of Alabama's House of Representatives began a campaign to re-enfranchise ex-prisoners in the state after they had served out their sentences. At the time, Kennedy's crusade appeared little short of quixotic; in an era where politicians were made and broken according to their tough-on-crime credentials, who in their right mind would waste political capital arguing that ex-cons should have the right to vote?
By last year, however, three years after felon disenfranchisement in Florida had, at least in part, determined the outcome of the 2000 election, and with presidential wannabes jockeying for position before the start of the Democratic primaries, re-enfranchisement had become a hot-button political issue across the country. "The campaign," says Robin Templeton, national director of the Right to Vote Campaign, "has to do to felon disfranchisement what civil rights did to poll taxes and literacy tests. It's about the legacy of Jim Crow persisting today."
In their annual conference in San Francisco, the American Bar Association came out against the disenfranchisement of ex-prisoners. In July, at the NAACP convention in Miami, six of the original crop of Democratic hopefuls for the presidential nomination came out in favor of restoring the vote to felons after the completion of their sentences. In Florida, lawyers are fighting a major lawsuit against disenfranchisement codes, and, in two separate cases, the state agreed to re-enfranchise many tens of thousands of individuals, while leaving hundreds of thousands of others still voteless. In Wyoming and Nevada, the legislatures have passed partial re-enfranchisement, allowing non-violent first time felons to regain their vote after completion of their sentence.
Elsewhere, over the past couple years, Delaware has abandoned permanent disenfranchisement; Connecticut has moved to restore the vote to parolees; an appeals court in Washington state overturned a lower court ruling dismissing a challenge to that state's disenfranchisement provisions; and New Jersey and Minnesota are debating whether to restore the vote to those on parole and probation. Yet several other states have rebuffed re-enfranchisement efforts and are continuing to bar people with felony convictions from electoral participation.
"There's been a remarkable shift away from permanent disenfranchisement in a number of states," says attorney Jessie Allen, of the New York-based Brennan Center for Social Justice. Allen is currently lead attorney in a lawsuit alleging that Florida's disenfranchisement laws violate the Voting Rights Act because of their disproportionate impact on minority populations. "The ones where it's left are almost all old Confederacy states -- and I don't think that's accidental."
Perhaps nowhere has the debate been fiercer than in Alabama, one of only 13 states going into the 2000 election to still have on the books a permanent disenfranchisement statute effecting individuals ever convicted of a felony; and one of only six states not to have enacted some modifying legislation since that date.
By last summer the legislative Black Caucus was firmly in favor of re-enfranchisement, as were a large number of white Democratic politicians. Their reasoning was simple: the pols had realized that in an era of mass incarceration, disfranchisement laws relating to those convicted of felonies were hugely impacting the political process, and removing large numbers of low-income and minority voters (people demographically likely to vote Democrat) from the electoral rolls.
Recently generated numbers by University of Minnesota sociologist Chris Uggen indicate that 6.38 percent of Alabama's adult population is now legally disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, with fully 13.97 percent of the adult black population (and upwards of a quarter of all adult black men) disbarred from voting. In Florida, more than three quarters of a million residents, or over 7 percent of the adult population, cannot vote unless the governor personally pardons them. In Virginia, 310,000 are permanently disenfranchised; in Mississippi, 119,000; in Kentucky 147,000; and in tiny Iowa (the only non-Southern state to retain, in its entirety, the permanent disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions), 100,000.
"To me, this is a basic right that anybody who lives in a democracy should have," explains African-American Democratic representative Merika Coleman. Coleman says that when she campaigned for office in 2002, she remembers meeting "so many young men who said 'sister, I'd love to support you, but I'm a convicted felon. I don't have the right to vote.'"
In June, after supporters of re-enfranchisement had broken a Republican filibuster by preventing votes on a number of Republican-supported measures until after re-enfranchisement had been voted on, both Houses of the Alabama legislature finally passed a version of re-enfranchisement. The legislation was intended to restore the vote to tens of thousands of non-violent offenders who had successfully completed their sentences.
But then, disaster struck. In July, Republican Governor Bob Riley very publicly vetoed the legislation.
Riley's office did not return phone calls for this article, but proponents of the bill recall that the Alabama governor argued there was already a process in place that allowed individuals with felony convictions to apply for a pardon and re-enfranchisement (no matter that the process, including a mandatory DNA test, was so cumbersome and expensive that hardly anyone succeeded in having their vote restored). Thus, according to such logic, the bill to re-enfranchise whole groups of ex-cons was unnecessary.
But the story didn't end there. In September, the state faced both a referendum and a special legislative session on a package of tax increases that Riley said were necessary for the state to survive its current budget crisis, and it seemed likely the measure would fail without the support of black legislators and voters who were pressuring the governor to sign some limited re-enfranchisement law in exchange for their support on the tax plan.
"One of Riley's aides told me he was on a two-hour black radio program to talk about the tax package," states Merika Coleman. "For half an hour he was able to talk about taxes, then people called in and wanted to talk about the re-enfranchisement bill." Robin Templeton believes that Riley's veto of re-enfranchisement "catalyzed this movement. Riley successfully pissed off the African American community. It's a very ripe moment to make this an issue."
The tax bill went down in flames, yet, hoping to salvage some of this package down the road and thus needing to maintain a civil relationship with the Black Caucus, Gov. Riley eventually decided that his career would be best served by signing a limited re-enfranchisement bill. In late September, Riley signed a law allowing the majority of ex-cons in his state (with the exception of those convicted of murder, rape, and a handful of other charges) to apply for a "certificate of eligibility to register to vote."
While this still placed the onus on individual former felons to apply for the paperwork, it set down definite criteria for re-enfranchisement, thus ending the arbitrary nature of the old commutation system, and representing a significant first step toward re-enfranchisement in Alabama.
Yet, nationally, many millions of potential voters will still be legally barred from voting as the country heads into the presidential election season.
"It's a terrible feeling, being disenfranchised," says one-time Alabama Representative Patricia Davis, who was convicted of accepting $19,200 in bribes in 1995, and served five years in a federal prison. Davis, an African-American, has applied for a pardon so that she can vote again, yet the parole board denied her petition. "It takes so much away from you. My parents left the South in the '50s because they didn't have the right to vote. For me, now, not to have the right to vote, it's like starting all over again. You lose everything."
"Before I realized I was disenfranchised," says ex-con David Sadler of the Alabama Restore The Vote Coalition, "I didn't vote because I didn't think it mattered. Once I knew it was taken away from me, it became my mission to vote. It's a right the poorest person in the country has and the richest person in the country has. Once they take it away from you, that's when you want it most."
The Right to Vote Campaign launches its new website on March 23.