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Allowing Parolees to Vote Would Rebuild Lives

Published: July 16, 2006

The Denver Post

July 16, 2006

Allowing parolees to vote would rebuild lives

By Neema Trivedi & Jenny Rose Flanagan

Colorado is moving into a lively and important election season, but more than 28,000 citizens of the state will be barred from participating because of felony convictions. Like every American, they have much at stake in the upcoming elections, but they will have no voice unless current law is changed.

Felony disenfranchisement laws vary significantly from state to state. Maine and Vermont allow people in prison to vote. But Florida, Kentucky and Virginia bar people from the polls even after serving their full criminal sentences. Twelve states and the District of Columbia restore the right to vote to individuals upon release from prison. In Colorado, people with felony convictions are denied the right to vote while in prison and on parole.

What this means is that many Colorado residents who have done their time in prison are still unable to register and vote when they re-enter society. Nearly 7,000 of those who are disenfranchised in Colorado because of felony convictions are living, working and raising families alongside the rest of us. Though they pay taxes and are concerned about the future of their communities, they have no say in the way their lives are governed.

In his 2004 State of the Union address, President Bush noted, America is the land of second chances, and when the gates of the prisons open, the path ahead should lead to a better life. A better life includes the right to vote and the ability to participate meaningfully in civic life.

Instead of opening the path to a better life, the state’s felon disenfranchisement law sends a loud and clear message to people who are trying to rebuild their lives: No matter how hard you try, and no matter how much you contribute, you are still a second-class citizen. Removing the stigma of past mistakes and encouraging people to participate as full citizens is far more likely to promote their successful reintegration into their communities.

In fact, studies have shown that ex- offenders who vote are less likely to be re-arrested than those who do not vote. Restoring the vote thus not only helps those individuals who have lost their voting rights, but more broadly promotes public safety by allowing people coming out of prison to feel invested in their neighborhoods.

States are increasingly recognizing that it makes sense to lower the barriers to full civic participation. Since 1997, 12 states have made legislative or policy changes restoring the vote to at least some people with criminal convictions or easing clemency procedures. Yet, nationwide, more than 5 million Americans are still unable to vote because of a felony conviction.

In an election year, there will undoubtedly be speculation about how people with felony convictions in Colorado would vote if given the chance. There might be speculation about whether they would vote at all. But we do not deny people the right to vote because we disagree with their political views. And we do not deny people the right to vote because they might not exercise that right.

Interviews and studies show that people with felony convictions do want to vote. Restoring their rights promotes faith in the possibility of inclusion and fair representation in the political process. It is time for Colorado to give people with felony convictions the chance to participate as full citizens.

In 2007, the Colorado legislature should change the law and make it clear that people who have served their prison time are able to vote while on parole. In addition, there are steps Colorado agencies can take right now. The Colorado secretary of state, county clerks and law-enforcement offices should increase their efforts of outreach to released felons, explaining in clear terms their voting rights and encouraging them to register and vote.

Jenny Rose Flanagan is associate director of Colorado Common Cause, and Neema Trivedi is a research associate in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.