State restrictions on early voting, voter ID laws and regulations on voter registration groups have been getting a lot of attention this year because of the impact they could have on the 2012 election. But there’s at least one voting issue that advocates say deserves more focus: the disenfranchisement of former felons.
Nationwide, the approximately 5.3 million Americans with felonies (and, in several states, those with misdemeanor convictions) are kept away from the polls, according to the American Civil Liberties Unions (ACLU). The organization is sponsoring the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), which would create a federal standard for restoring the voting rights of felons. The ACLU doesn’t have any pipe dreams about passing the law this year, but they’re holding out hope it will have a chance with a more favorable Congress.
The issue of restoring the voting rights of former felons has long been a goal of civil rights groups, who say it is a hold over of the Jim Crow era. But other than a brief appearance in a Republican presidential debate this year after a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC launched ads attacking Rick Santorum for his support of giving felons the right to vote after they served their time, the issue hasn’t gotten much attention.
The issue of felons voting does tend to come up among supporters of voter ID laws who say such laws could keep felons from voting or cite convictions of former felons voting as evidence of why voter ID is needed. Civil rights groups, of course, point out that voter ID laws would do nothing to stop felons from voting.
One former felon now working with the ACLU in support of the Democracy Restoration Act said that many of the convictions are a result of felons’ lack of awareness about their inability to cast a ballot.
“In my experience not many individuals are aware that they do not have their voting rights,” former felon Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), said in an interview with TPM last week. “A lot of people associate the right to vote with whether or not they’re able to receive a voter registration card.”
Voter ID, says the ACLU’s Deborah J. Vagins, “would do nothing to stop these sorts of problems.” She said the Democracy Restoration Act would create a “bright line” for elections officials by mandating that anyone who was no longer in prison would be allowed to vote.
Meade, who said he was convicted of aggravated battery and possession of cocaine and subsequently sentenced for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and released in 2004, said that he saw how easy it could be for felons to think they had the right to vote.
“I remember when I was released from prison, and this happens a lot, and this pretty lady came up to me and asked me ‘want to register to vote?’ — I’m not going to tell her I was an ex-con. And she smelled good too. I just got out… I want to hang out with her as much as possible. So I fill out the form in my hand knowing that they’ll never give that to me, I’m a convicted felon, whatever,” Meade said.
“Two weeks later, low and behold, I receive a voter registration card. I knew better. But if it happened to me, how many other people did it happen to?” Meade continued.
Meade believes that felony disenfranchisement is part of a larger push to keep minorities away from the polls.
“I am reluctant to look at felon disenfranchisement as an isolated incident. I look at it more holistically in the grand scheme of things, and this is definitely a tactic that’s being used under the guise of public safety to actually disenfranchise minorities or prevent minorities from having access to the voting booth,” Meade said. “Our position is that when it comes to something like voting, it should be taken out of the politician’s hands.”
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