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Democracy Restoration Act Would Restore Voting Rights to Millions

It’s time for Congress to protect the rights citizens of a democracy hold most dear and create the opportunity for greater citizen participation. Members can begin by opening up the voter rolls to the four million Americans covered by the Democracy Restoration Act.

Published: April 26, 2012

Appeared on the Huff­ing­ton Post.

Despite two centur­ies of a national history extend­ing the right to vote to ever more Amer­ic­ans, state legis­latures have recently passed a flurry of laws that make voting more diffi­cult. Some require govern­ment-issued photo iden­ti­fic­a­tion cards; others are obstruct­ing early voting or restrict­ing voter regis­tra­tion drives. It’s time for Congress to protect the rights citizens of a demo­cracy hold most dear and create the oppor­tun­ity for greater citizen parti­cip­a­tion. Members can begin by open­ing up the voter rolls to the four million Amer­ic­ans covered by the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act.

Intro­duced by Senator Ben Cardin from Mary­land and Repres­ent­at­ive John Conyers from Michigan, the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act is legis­la­tion that would restore voting rights in federal elec­tions to Amer­ic­ans disen­fran­chised because of past crim­inal convic­tions. It is based on a simple truth: restore the right to vote and you restore a formerly disen­fran­chised citizen’s stake in the community, boost­ing the chances of a success­ful reentry into main­stream soci­ety. With­hold it and you send a power­ful message that indi­vidu­als with past crim­inal convic­tions are not welcome to rejoin our demo­cracy.

At the heart of our crim­inal justice system is a belief in rehab­il­it­a­tion and redemp­tion. A person who has commit­ted a crime could lose his or her liberty for a period of time. But when the crim­inal justice system decides she or he can appro­pri­ately live among us, we cannot expect a person to work, pay taxes and assim­il­ate back into the community if he or she is not afforded a voice in how that soci­ety is governed. This is not only unfair; it is coun­ter­pro­duct­ive to making the nation safer and more demo­cratic.

State disen­fran­chise­ment laws have a profound impact on minor­it­ies. Nation­wide, an estim­ated 13 percent of African-Amer­ican men have lost the right to vote because of spend­ing time in prison, a rate that is seven times the national aver­age. Given current rates of incar­cer­a­tion, three in ten of the next gener­a­tion of African-Amer­ican men can expect to lose the right to vote at some point in their life­times.

There was a time in our coun­try’s history when the right to vote was limited to prop­er­tied white men, but the United States has since followed an arc tilted firmly toward suffrage. By the end of the 1800s, most states had abol­ished prop­erty qual­i­fic­a­tions for voting and the Fifteenth Amend­ment enfran­chised African-Amer­ican men. By the end of the 1900s, grand­father clauses, liter­acy tests, poll taxes and prohib­i­tions against voting by women and Native Amer­ic­ans had ended. The present-day disen­fran­chise­ment of citizens with crim­inal histor­ies, rooted in our coun­try’s Jim Crow laws, does viol­ence to our coun­try’s traject­ory towards a more inclus­ive demo­cracy.

Voting helps trans­form a former pris­oner from an outsider into a law-abid­ing citizen. Indeed, stud­ies show that those who cast a ballot are less likely to commit another crime. Because the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act bolsters public safety, the bill has garnered the support of law enforce­ment agen­cies, includ­ing the Amer­ican Proba­tion and Parole Asso­ci­ation and the Amer­ican Correc­tional Asso­ci­ation. Law enforce­ment and reentry profes­sion­als recog­nize that creat­ing community ties through parti­cip­at­ory roles such as voting integ­rates an indi­vidual back into a soci­ety after a crim­inal convic­tion.

The legis­la­tion has also won the endorse­ment of secu­lar organ­iz­a­tions like the Amer­ican Bar Asso­ci­ation, the Lead­er­ship Confer­ence on Civil Rights; and a vari­ety of faith-based organ­iz­a­tions includ­ing the Unit­arian Univer­sal­ist Asso­ci­ation of Congreg­a­tions and the Evan­gel­ical Lutheran Church in Amer­ica because the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act deliv­ers on the prom­ises of redemp­tion and rehab­il­it­a­tion.

Finally, the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act would ease admin­is­trat­ive confu­sion over voter eligib­il­ity and elim­in­ate the incon­sist­en­cies that result from the states’ myriad of disen­fran­chise­ment laws. Every indi­vidual with a past convic­tion is allowed to vote in Maine and Vermont, while one in Kentucky or Virginia faces perman­ent disen­fran­chise­ment unless he or she is gran­ted discre­tion­ary clem­ency. The vast major­ity of states fall some­where in between these two extremes, lead­ing to complex eligib­il­ity require­ments that often bewilder local elec­tion offi­cials and create miscon­cep­tions among people with prior crim­inal records about their own eligib­il­ity. It is an inequity to which we cannot subject citizens any longer.

Up until this past year, states have been the engines behind redu­cing voting restric­tions on persons with crim­inal convic­tions. Yet, for the millions of Amer­ic­ans who remain disen­fran­chised, the nation remains a patch­work of regu­la­tion and the recent wave of restrict­ive voting laws passed by state legis­latures offers little hope that further liber­al­iz­a­tion will happen in the states any time soon. Congres­sional action is our best hope to redress these inequit­ies in the short run.