Not All Voters Get a V.I.P Pass

Election '04

As Election Day quickly approaches, we are called upon to exercise our civic duties. We are told that all of our votes count and carry the same weight. However, while political candidates rally crowds at stadiums and venues across the country, many of our nation's citizens are forced to sit on the political sidelines. This is due to a patchwork of disfranchisement laws that prevent people with felony convictions from voting.

Americans are taught very early on about our enviable democracy. However, from its early beginnings, America has sought to use the vote as a V.I.P. pass, rather than extending it as a fundamental right of citizenship.

On Nov. 2, as non -and owners, African Americans, women and 18- to 20-year-olds, who have gained access to our invitation-only system head to the polls, nearly five million Americans will be left out. They include 13 percent of our nation's African American men, more women than the entire population of the nation's capital, and over a half a million veterans of our armed forces.

Each state creates its own laws with regard to felony disfranchisement, which gives us an array of laws that have proven confusing even to those charged with implementation and enforcement. In two states – Maine and Vermont – registered citizens are allowed to vote from prison. In the majority of states voting rights depends on whether you are finished with prison, parole or probation. In seven states, you can loose your right to vote for life depending on the year or type of conviction. Still in seven more states, all people with felony convictions are denied the right to vote for life, this includes Florida, which proved pivotal in the last presidential election.

The United States is the only democracy in the world where you can be denied the right to vote for life.

Given the remarkably low threshold for what constitutes a "felony" – which in some states can be as minor as writing a bad check, making a verbal threat or possessing unlicensed fireworks or less than one gram of a controlled substance – proponents of disfranchisement are hard-pressed to explain the risks of extending the vote to people with felony convictions.

But wouldn't it degrade the integrity of our elections to allow people to vote who probably don't even understand politics and wouldn't be motivated to vote anyway? These arguments are eerily reminiscent of those offered historically by opponents of extending the franchise to women and people of color. They are also untrue.

In fact the nation's prison guards think these arguments are untrue as well. The American Correctional Association supports the restoration of voting rights upon completion of sentence, citing the need to reduce recidivism and support re-entry.

For whom the disenfranchised would vote is irrelevant. What matters is that felony disfranchisement laws are unfair and undemocratic. Born into being with the cry of "no taxation without representation," the United States is shutting millions of taxpayers out of its upcoming presidential race.

Ask the Rev. Kenny Glasgow. Based in a poor African American community in Dothan, Ala., and formerly incarcerated and disfranchised, Glasgow's ministry includes voter registration among churchgoers as well as people coming home from prison.

"Just look at my neighborhood," says Glasgow. "Our schools are failing, our roads need repair and we're losing our young ones to violence. If people like me don't have a stake in this election coming up, I don't know who does."

In fact, Alabama, like many southern states, is home to some of the nation's harshest disfranchisement laws. Written into the books right after Reconstruction, with the intention of preventing newly free African American men from voting, they are in many ways the last legal vestige of Jim Crow.

Unfortunately, many Americans incorrectly assume that disfranchisement laws do not affect them. They are wrong. These laws drain communities of their political power, and this doesn't just affect African Americans and Latinos. These laws also affect poor whites as well, who are also disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.

Still think this doesn't affect you? The varying of laws state to state has caused countless bureaucratic errors that do not just affect those with felony convictions, but affect those that come from the same communities, as well as those with similar names. For instance, during the 2000 election, over 90,000 people – disproportionately black and Latino – were erroneously thought to have felony convictions and were removed or purged from the voter rolls in Florida without being informed.

A recent study on voter purges conducted by the Right to Vote Campaign along with two of its national partners, ACLU and Demos, showed that in all of the 15 states it surveyed not one had a legislative standard for purging people with felony convictions, nor did many of the states have a legitimate way of informing people that their names were removed. Meaning: you could be incorrectly purged from the voter rolls and not know until Election Day.

After the dust clears on the 2004 election, it will be our time not to relax for two or four years. The time will be ripe to recommit ourselves in the fight for fairer and more democratic systems. Felony disfranchisement laws cripple our democracy and prevent our elections from truly representing the opinions of all communities. As America seeks to spread its enviable brand of democracy around the world, it would do us well to cut down our velvet ropes here at home.

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