Voting Rights for Ex-Felons
Posted: April 28, 2014
April 28, 2014.
Voting Rights for Ex-felons.
National Commission on Voting Rights, Pacific Northwest Regional Hearing.
A citizen’s right to vote has been a core tenet of the League of Women Voters since its founding in 1920. That’s why I’m here on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Oregon to speak about a voting rights issue that impacts nearly six million citizens across the country. The citizens I refer to are ex-felons who live in states that exclude them from voting, in some cases for the rest of their lives. This denial of a basic democratic right makes no sense if we accept the idea that those who have paid their debt to society should be encouraged to become fully engaged citizens.
I’d like to briefly explain my own connection to this issue. This past year I helped to teach a series of classes on civic engagement to a group of women inmates at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon. These women all had less than two years to complete on their sentences and were working to gain the skills necessary to enter the work force and integrate into the community upon their release. They learned that, thankfully, Oregon is one of 14 states that restores the right to vote immediately upon release from prison. However, they were shocked to find out that 24 states disenfranchise those on parole and/or probation, while 11 others permanently disenfranchise some or all ex-felons.
This patchwork of convoluted state disenfranchisement laws is not only confusing but patently unfair, given that the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution states “No state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” To make matters worse, according to a 2008 study by the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice, great numbers of state election officials do not understand basic voter eligibility rules or registration procedures for people with criminal convictions. Inaccurate information provided to ex-felons may lead them to unwittingly register and vote, thereby committing a new crime.
Many of the disenfranchisement laws originated in the days of Jim Crow to prevent access to the ballot box. Tragically, today, due to the perpetuation of unfair sentencing laws, this pattern of disenfranchisement continues to have a hugely disproportionate effect on African-Americans. A disturbing statistic is that 13 percent of black men are barred from voting today.
While states hold the power to mandate state voting laws, it follows that the federal government should be empowered to determine who can vote in federal elections. The Democracy Restoration Act, originally introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2010, was again introduced on April 10th of this year. This legislation would not only restore voting rights in federal elections to those released from prison and living in the community, it would ensure the dissemination of clear, accurate information about these rights.
The League of Women Voters of Oregon urges this Commission to provide as much support as possible at both the state and national levels for efforts to restore voting rights to ex-felons upon release from prison. These vestiges of discrimination and racism should play no part in a modern democratic society.
Past-President, League of Women Voters of Oregon
Category: LWV Testimony
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