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)