A Sudden Push for Felon Voting Rights in a Most Unlikely Place

RIght now there is a stream of legislation on Capitol Hill that could open the door to restoration of the vote for millions of disenfranchised convicts and ex-cons.

From National Geographic Channel’s Locked In, inmates stand in line to enter the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison cafeteria.
From National Geographic Channel’s Locked In, inmates stand in line to enter the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison cafeteria. Derek Bell

If advocates have their way, voting rights could be a new reality for the nation’s incarcerated.

Full voting rights for felons is as hot a topic in Washington as voting rights in reverse pushed by voter-ID-tickled Republicans. But with new legislation moving through the Senate, a spotlight is being placed anew on the plight of prisoners who not only face electoral disenfranchisement behind bars but also have no way to participate once they return home.

“While release may be granted, access is denied,” said Desmond Meade, an ex-offender who later became a leading felon-rights activist and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

As the Sentencing Project noted in its 2010 analysis, there were nearly 5.85 million Americans who were restricted from voting—600,000 more than its research in 2004. That included 4 million already out in the community and completely barred from political participation. But a 2012 voter-turnout study by the George Mason University Elections Project found more than 6.8 million Americans combined who were either in prison, on probation, on parole or completely ineligible to vote because of felony convictions.

Not only does the U.S. penal population account for half of the more than 10 million prisoners in the world, but its number has increased a staggering 481 percent since 1976, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of Essex.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no restrictions on felon voting rights. In three of the states with restrictions—Florida, Kentucky and Virginia—the Sentencing Project estimates that 1 in 5 African-American adults are disenfranchised.

That has plucked a nerve with Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder compares it to a post-Civil War South, when blacks “swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives.”

Those numbers have also caught the attention of a few senators, including one not-so-low-key Republican presidential hopeful. That’s opened up a recent stream of legislation seeking a federal solution, from the Democracy Restoration Act, S. 2235, to the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act, S. 2550, and a complementary REDEEM Act, which may not focus specifically on voting rights but already has a companion test-run bill in the House.  

“I think that’s consistent with the values of America,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), author of the Democracy Restoration Act, during a Tuesday panel by the American Civil Liberties Union. “The United States is usually seen as taking the lead on these issues globally, but we need to take care of business at home.”

Cardin, calling it “the Jim Crow law of our time,” pointed out the 8 percent of African Americans who are disenfranchised, in addition to the 17 percent of Latino men overall.