On Monday, Washington Governor Chris Gregoire signed into law the Voting Rights Restoration Act, a new law that eliminates the requirement that people coming out of the criminal justice system pay all fees, fines and restitution, including hefty surcharges and accrued interest, before being allowed to vote. The right to vote in Washington will no longer hinge on one’s ability to pay. With this new law, Washington becomes the twentieth state in the last decade to ease voting restrictions on people with criminal histories who are out of prison and living in the community.
But there remain more than five million American citizens who are disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction in their past. Nearly four million of these citizens are out of prison—living in the community, working, raising families, and paying taxes alongside the rest of us but still denied the right to vote, often for decades and sometimes for life.
State felony disenfranchisement laws form what some advocates have termed a “crazy quilt” across the country. Maine and Vermont do not withdraw the franchise based on criminal convictions; prisoners may vote there. Virginia and Kentucky are the last two remaining states that permanently disenfranchise all people with felony convictions unless they receive individual, discretionary clemency from the governor. The rest of the states run the gamut in between, but a total of 35 states continue to disenfranchise people after release from prison.
The right to vote forms the core of American democracy. Once a privilege reserved for a few white men, Americans have fought hard to make it a right guaranteed to all. Generations have marched through the streets, onto battlefields, and into courthouses to expand the franchise beyond the privileged few. Our modern democracy stands for nothing if not the fundamental tenet that each citizen is entitled to one vote, and each vote counts the same regardless of who casts it. Voting is the essence of political equality, and it is that equality that forms the very foundation upon which the legitimacy of our government relies.
Removing four million Americans from the electorate creates an undeniable inequity—an entire population of second-class citizens. Their lives are governed by leaders whom they have no role in choosing — from the President to members of their local school board. With each crack in the foundation, our democracy weakens.
There is a growing national chorus calling for reform of these laws, including many law enforcement and criminal justice leaders, and prominent clergy and religious organizations, all of whom understand that bringing people back into the political process makes them stakeholders in the community and helps steer them from future crimes.
Despite the recent progress in the states, millions of American citizens remain disenfranchised. And because of documented widespread and persistent confusion among elections officials across the country, untold hundreds of thousands of eligible voters believe they cannot vote because of a criminal conviction in their past.
Congress now has the opportunity to restore democracy, and there is a movement underway to do just that. The Democracy Restoration Act, soon to be introduced by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI), would automatically restore the right to vote in federal elections upon release from prison. People on probation would never lose the right to vote. This law would make every adult American citizen living in the community eligible to vote. The last blanket barrier to the franchise would topple.