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Battling for Rights Restoration, Honoring Dr. King

Fighting to restore the vote to those with past convictions is a key part of fulfilling MLK’s legacy. And it’s more achievable now than ever.

January 18, 2019

Last week, Iowa’s Repub­lican governor called for a state consti­tu­tional amend­ment to restore voting rights to people with crim­inal convic­tions. That came just days after Flor­idi­ans with felony records filled out regis­tra­tion forms the moment that state’s newly approved rights restor­a­tion amend­ment went into effect.

The move­ment to rein­state voting rights is more than just about cast­ing a ballot — it’s about restor­ing equal­ity and dignity to people targeted by restrict­ive, racially motiv­ated policies that strip them of their rights. Equal­ity and dignity were at the heart of MLK’s life and work. Today as we celeb­rate Dr. King, it’s clear that restor­ing voting rights to people with crim­inal convic­tions in their past, perhaps more achiev­able now than ever, is a key part of fulfilling his legacy.

Laws that disen­fran­chise people because of crim­inal convic­tions are unequal, barring Amer­ic­ans from exer­cising their rights based on where they live. If you’re in Maine or Vermont, you can vote from prison. If you live in Iowa or Kentucky, a felony convic­tion means you’re disen­fran­chised for life (unless the governor decides to pardon you). In Color­ado, you can vote if you are on proba­tion, but not parole. In Tennessee, you can’t get your right to vote back after a convic­tion if you are delin­quent on child support payments.

And then there’s the unequal impact on people of color. In 2016, African Amer­ic­ans made up more than a third of people disen­fran­chised in this coun­try on account of crim­inal convic­tions. And history suggests that was by design. For example, in New York, after the Civil war, the Four­teenth and Fifteenth Amend­ments forced the state to elim­in­ate its require­ment that African-Amer­ican men — and only black men — own prop­erty in order to vote, but New York found a new way to continue its disen­fran­chise­ment of African Amer­ic­ans. Legis­lat­ors changed the law from allow­ing counties to decide whether to disen­fran­chise Amer­ic­ans convicted of crimes to requir­ing disen­fran­chise­ment of anyone convicted of a vaguely defined “infam­ous crime.”

The move­ment to rein­state voting rights is also about restor­ing dignity. State laws disen­fran­chising Amer­ic­ans with crim­inal convic­tions who are living and work­ing in our communit­ies create second-class citizens. Those citizens are equally impacted by the laws and policies that politi­cians put into place but are unable to have a voice as to who those politi­cians are or a way to hold them account­able. Disen­fran­chising our neigh­bors robs them of contrib­ut­ing to the civic health of the coun­try.

Amer­ic­ans are begin­ning to acknow­ledge these iniquit­ies, and politi­cians are respond­ing to the pres­sure. Along with Iowa’s governor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York recently used his clem­ency power to restore voting rights to New York­ers who were on parole (proba­tion­ers could already vote). Louisi­ana last spring enacted a law restor­ing voting rights to indi­vidu­als on proba­tion and parole if they have been out of prison at least five years. And Flor­id­a’s amend­ment, passed last Novem­ber, epitom­izes our highest ideals: Hundreds of thou­sands of Flor­idi­ans went to the polls and used their vote to restore voting rights to their neigh­bors and family members who could­n’t.

But voters have to keep up the pres­sure.

Iowans must take up the governor’s call to pass an amend­ment ending its policy of perman­ent disen­fran­chise­ment. Kentucki­ans should do the same. New Jersey voters have to demand that legis­lat­ors finally pass a bill restor­ing voting rights to all Amer­ic­ans who live and work in the community. The current governor, unlike his prede­cessor Chris Christie, has said he will sign it. And New York­ers must tell their legis­lat­ors to make the governor’s exec­ut­ive order legis­la­tion part of that state’s voting rights over­haul. That way future governors won’t be able to arbit­rar­ily turn voting rights into a polit­ical foot­ball.

There are plenty of other states where resid­ents can look at their own state laws and demand rights restor­a­tion policies that are more consist­ent with the prin­ciples of dignity and equal­ity. We as Amer­ic­ans can also come together and tell Congress to pass the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act, a federal bill that, if passed, would make it possible for Amer­ic­ans with convic­tions in their past to vote in federal elec­tions.

To be sure, people often use MLK Day to force Dr. King’s broad hopes into their own narrow interests. But when it comes to restor­ing voting rights, and indeed secur­ing equal­ity and dignity for all Amer­ic­ans, it’s clear that King’s legacy would only be exten­ded by allow­ing all Amer­ic­ans — regard­less of their past trans­gres­sions — to take part in our demo­cracy.

(Image: Asso­ci­ated Press)