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The Democracy Restoration Act: Securing Voting Rights for All

The Democracy Restoration Act is a crucial step forward in ensuring that we stay true to our promise to make this a nation that provides equality for all.

  • Nicole Austin-Hillery
April 15, 2014

Cross­pos­ted on ACS Blog

The right to vote is at the heart of our Amer­ican demo­cracy. Polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion by citizens is the great equal­izer — it is the one thing that allows all Amer­ic­ans, no matter how power­ful or weak, to make decisions about who will lead and who will help to advance their interests and protect their famil­ies. On April 10, Congress took an import­ant step towards ensur­ing that this crucial right becomes avail­able to even more Amer­ic­ans. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) intro­duced the bi-cameral Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act (DRA). This import­ant legis­la­tion would restore the right to vote in federal elec­tions to the previ­ously incar­cer­ated imme­di­ately after their incar­cer­a­tion period is complete. Doing so would enable these indi­vidu­als to resume the right and respons­ib­il­ity inher­ent in our role as Amer­ic­ans — assert­ing our voice through the ballot box.

The DRA was first intro­duced in 2009 by former Sen. Russell Fein­gold. Previ­ously, the bill received strong support, but never quite enough to become a real­ity. This time, however, is differ­ent. There is an enthu­si­astic and bi-partisan move­ment under­way to reform those parts of our crim­inal justice system that do not work.  We can see this at the national as well as the state level:  Congress is consid­er­ing reform­ing the federal senten­cing struc­ture to make sentences fairer in an effort to help elim­in­ate mass incar­cer­a­tion; the Depart­ment of Justice has insti­tuted a “Smart on Crime” initi­at­ive that would result in better decision-making by prosec­utors; and several states, most notably Kentucky, are consid­er­ing legis­la­tion that would restore voting rights to the formerly incar­cer­ated in its state pris­ons. Other states have also made signi­fic­ant changes to their laws to open up the fran­chise to the formerly incar­cer­ated, most notably in Delaware, and Virginia – a state that had previ­ously been cited as having one of the most draconian felon disfran­chise­ment laws on the books. So the moment to finally restore voting rights to the formerly incar­cer­ated, who have paid their debts for their crimes, is now.

Unlike other attempts to restore voting rights, the DRA is the most compre­hens­ive effort. Under the legis­la­tion, once an indi­vidual has completed his or her incar­cer­a­tion period, their right to vote in federal elec­tions will be auto­mat­ic­ally restored.  Indi­vidu­als will not be limited because of any ancil­lary issues related to their incar­cer­a­tion such as outstand­ing fees and fines or the fact that they have been released from prison but remain on proba­tion. This is a signi­fic­ant feature of the DRA.

Our nation requires the formerly incar­cer­ated to become fully integ­rated members of their communit­ies with respect to all of their other rights and respons­ib­il­it­ies such as secur­ing employ­ment, paying taxes and obey­ing laws. Why, too, should they not, upon comple­tion of their incar­cer­a­tion, be afforded the right to vote? Voting is as essen­tial to being a full-fledged member of our communit­ies as are any of the other rights and respons­ib­il­it­ies that these indi­vidu­als will be expec­ted to uphold. Evid­ence has shown that the formerly incar­cer­ated are less likely to recidivate when they are encour­aged and suppor­ted in their efforts to re-engage with soci­ety. In a law review article on voting and subsequent crime, an analysis of the possible causal rela­tion­ship between voting, or civic rein­teg­ra­tion and recidiv­ism is examined and provides strong evid­ence. A sound case is made for the argu­ment that when the formerly incar­cer­ated are civically engaged, there is a strong asso­ci­ation between that engage­ment and the avoid­ance of illegal activ­ity.

Taking part in our demo­cracy and having a voice in how our communit­ies are governed is perhaps the most signi­fic­ant way for any Amer­ican to feel that they have a stake in our nation.  The Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act is a crucial step forward in ensur­ing that we stay true to our prom­ise to make this a nation that provides equal­ity for all.

(Photo: Flickr/Alan Alfaro)