Getting All Veterans to the Voting Booths

On Memorial Day this year we will dedicate a new national memorial to Americans who served in World War II. The decision to join America's armed forces isn't something most of us make lightly. As an Army veteran of the Vietnam era, Memorial Day reminds me of the tremendous sacrifice of my brave friends and colleagues. I am blessed to still be here as a community activist and father to my four daughters.

Another celebration this month -- the 50th Anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision and its extraordinary impact on American society -- reminds us that many World War II vets returned from fighting for freedom abroad to a society that not only tolerated but enforced segregation, racial discrimination, and denial of voting rights.

The Brown decision galvanized a national commitment to making progress on all those fronts, yet 50 years later there are still more than 4 million Americans, including 500,000 veterans, who are denied the right to vote by state laws that keep felons and former felons out of the voting booth. It is especially troubling that the most fundamental right of citizenship - the right to participate in the democratic process -- is denied to those who risked their lives to achieve the goals set forth by the authors of our Constitution: "... to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

As veterans we leave the military with medals, ribbons and a national debt of gratitude for our service. However, as result of post-traumatic stress that results high rates of alcoholism, poverty and other collateral hardships, many veterans also find ourselves faced with a felony conviction. As a person with a felony conviction for drug possession, I know all too well the struggle to build a successful future. With veterans like me representing roughly one out every nine people denied the right to vote due to a felony conviction, Memorial Day shouldn't just be about the lives lost in foreign lands, but also about the rights lost here at home.

There are a number of organizations, including a national collaborative of eight civil rights groups called the Right to Vote Campaign, which is working to raise awareness of the consequences of laws that violate the spirit of the voting rights movement, hinder individuals' return to full citizenship, and leave millions of Americans without a voice in the future of their communities.

Some states automatically restore the right to vote when a person has completed his or her sentence or parole, a policy grounded in the understanding that encouraging civic participation is a powerful component of helping former felons become fully productive members of society. Some states erect significant barriers to the restoration of voting rights; several make that restoration impossible with lifetime bans.

Sadly, but predictably, the effort to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions has come under attack from demagogues claiming a cynical political motive for the effort. Such attacks ignore the principle that helping former felons successfully re-integrate into society is a goal that benefits everyone in our communities, regardless of political affiliation.

That is why in Texas, under a law signed by then-Governor George W. Bush, convicted felons who have served their time can reclaim every right of citizenship. Groups like Restorative Justice Ministries of North America work to help former prisoners in Texas become full and productive citizens, and encouraging them to register and vote is an important part of their work. Working, paying taxes, and voting are all part of responsible citizenship, ways that people can provide positive role models for their children to avoid making some of the same mistakes they may have made.

As we celebrate Memorial Day and other patriotic summer holidays that commemorate shared sacrifice and democratic principles, let us remember especially the sacrifices made by those who have served in our armed forces and who are now denied all the rights of citizenship. And let us work together toward a goal of increased civic participation, and toward the ideal of every citizen having the opportunity to exercise his or her right to vote.

Charles Slaughter is an organizer with the Texas Unlock Your Vote Coalition, which is a State Partner of the National Right to Vote Campaign.

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