Attorney General Spotlights Felon Disenfranchisement
Attorney General Eric Holder has made an effort in recent months to elevate key civil rights issues, especially those issues affecting our nation’s broken criminal justice system. One unexpected issue the Attorney General has chosen to highlight is the crucial problem of felon disenfranchisement. Amidst a backdrop of increasing bipartisan support for sentencing reform on Capitol Hill, increased knowledge about the racial disparities of mandatory minimum sentences, new questions about capital punishment and other significant developments in the areas of criminal justice and civil rights, the issue of felon disenfranchisement is another moral challenge of our time—and one gaining bipartisan momentum.
Voting laws are determined on a state-by-state basis, and felons in each state are treated differently when it comes to the restoration of their voting rights. In 15 states, felons have their right to vote restored when they are released from prison, but in 35 states those rights are restricted to varying degrees. Nationally, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are denied their right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws—that’s one in 40 Americans of voting age. But among African Americans, that figure soars to 1 in every 13 adults–and in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, one-in-five African Americans is disenfranchised by these policies. You can find more details on disenfranchised voters in your state here.
We should oppose these policies because we are concerned with both voting rights and criminal justice. From the standpoint of voting rights, U.S. law with regard to felon disenfranchisement (or the laws of some states, at least) are extreme. All Americans should be able to exercise their inalienable right to vote right; regardless of one’s past, once someone is out of prison they will inevitably take part in shaping our country’s future. Additionally, the racial disparities inherent in these policies are legacies of a criminal justice system that was used to advance racial inequality. Racial discrimination in voting is intolerable. Likewise, from the standpoint of criminal justice and public safety, disenfranchisement laws can contribute to recidivism. Such policies are detrimental to the imperative of reintegrating citizens back into their communities.
These policies are widespread, and remain politically popular, despite increasing opposition from Americans of various ideologies. That is why it is so noteworthy that the Attorney General is using his high-profile bully pulpit to speak out against these unjust state laws. His doing so has already had an impact. Alabama’s Republican governor announced that he is willing to consider reform on this issue in his state. Editorial boards across the country have called for a restoration of felon voting rights, while other newspapers have drawn attention to the issue. And for allies of the Democracy Restoration Act, a long-dormant federal bill that would restore voting rights to some felons, this key issue seems to be back in the conversation. The Reform Movement has long been committed to both voting rights and reform to our criminal justice system; these two related issues mean that we are particularly concerned about the ability of Americans, who have paid their debt to society, to exercise their right to vote.