Restoring voting rights to millions

March 16, 2010

Originally published at The Hill's Congress Blog, by Erika Wood and Garima Malhotra

Today Congress is listening to 4 million silenced Americans. Leaders of the House Judiciary Committee are holding a hearing on the Democracy Restoration Act, legislation that seeks to restore the right to vote to people with a criminal records who are out of prison, living in the community. This bill would eliminate the last blanket barrier to the franchise, and reverse decade of discrimination create by laws firmly rooted in our country’s Jim Crow history.

Today 5.3 million American citizens are denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction in their past. Four million are people who are out of prison, living in the community. States vary on whether, when and how they restore voting rights to people with criminal conviction, but all told 35 states continue to disenfranchise people who are out of prison, often for decades and sometimes for life.

Criminal disenfranchisement laws trace directly back to Jim Crow and were part of a concerted effort to maintain white control over access to the polls. Enacted alongside poll taxes and literacy tests, criminal disenfranchisement laws were part of a larger backlash against the adoption of the Reconstruction Amendments. At the same time states enacted these disenfranchisement provisions, they began to expand the criminal codes to punish offense they believed freed slaves were most likely to commit. The result: suppressed African-American political power for decades. Today, 13% of African-American men in our country have lost the right to vote.  

These tactics were not confined to the South. Our recent report shows that starting in the 18th century, the history of New York’s election laws follows the national narrative.  As African Americans gained freedom with the gradual end of slavery, New York’s voting qualifications – including criminal disenfranchisement laws – became increasingly more restrictive. The voting bar in the current New York constitution is nearly identical to the one enacted 140 years ago, and it continues to have its intended effects: 80% of those currently disenfranchised in New York due to a felony conviction are African-American or Latino. 

Support to end felony disenfranchisement laws has been steadily building across the country, crossing party lines and challenging stereotypes. In the last decade, 21 states have restored voting rights or eased the restoration process. Many of these recent reforms came about under Republican governors. Individuals in the law enforcement, criminal justice and faith communities are also speaking out in favor of restoring voting rights to people who are living in the community.

Some of these voices of reform have been invited to testify before Congress today. Among those testifying will be Carl Wicklund, Executive Director of the American Probation and Parole Association; Burt Neuborne, an NYU Law Professor and Legal Director of the Brennan Center for Justice; Hilary O. Shelton, Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau; Ion Sancho, Supervisor for Elections in Leon County, Florida; and Andres Idarraga, a Yale law student who voted for the first time in 2008 after having his voting rights restored by a change to Rhode Island’s felony disenfranchisement law.

For too long 4 million Americans have been denied a vote, and a voice, in our country. Today we urge Congress to listen carefully, and to restore our democracy.