Ben Cardin: Disfranchisement Bill Unlikely To Pass ‘In This Congress’
Principal sponsor of Senate voting rights bill for ex-felons says way forward must be strategic
WASHINGTON -- Restoring federal voting rights to ex-felons – a good number of them from minority communities – isn’t a politically tough issue for Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.
He can’t say the same for some of his Senate colleagues, whom he believes will need a bit of coaxing, before they’ll ignore what might be gained politically from passing the Democracy Restoration Act.
Cardin's Senate bill enjoys a wide-ranging coalition of support from civil rights, faith-based and law enforcement groups, whom he joined on Capitol Hill Wednesday, to push for more support in Congress.
“Voting rights are under attack -- we all know that,” said Cardin, acknowledging the recent spur in state voter suppression measures around the country. “To me, these are modern day Jim Crow laws. It should have no place in American politics.”
Cardin, to the relief of the supportive coalition, isn’t all rhetoric on the bill’s prospects. Selling a measure to increase the number of eligible voters, in an election year, isn’t exactly like dangling a bag of peanuts in front of his Republican colleagues. To his knowledge, there are no Republican co-sponsors of the bill.
Furthermore, a lot would have to change, and quickly, to increase the likelihood that the DRA makes it to President Barack Obama’s desk before the November election.
“I would be less than direct with you if I said we have a great chance of getting this passed in this Congress. We don’t,” Cardin said, during remarks at the briefing.
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The way forward has to be strategic, Cardin said. Part of that strategy includes leaning on the work of groups that support the bill and encouraging lawmakers to “put blinders on the politics of this.”
An obvious next step is to get a hearing on the bill in the Senate judiciary committee, which is chaired by Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont. His state is one of two that allows prisoners, probationers and parolees to vote.
At Wednesday's briefing, Deborah Vagins, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office, represented nearly three dozen civil rights organizations that support national guidelines for restoring voting rights to ex-felons.
“We’re about to face another election and there are milliona of Americans, who have served their time, are back in the community and can’t vote,” Vagins said.
An estimated 5.3 million ex-felons are without the right to vote. Of them, 1.4 million are African American, according to the ACLU and the Sentencing Project. The variance in disfranchisement policies, when displayed on a map, looks like patchwork and costs states billions, when the effects of disfranchisement are factored in, Vagins said.
Desmond Meade, an ex-felon and law student, who serves as president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, understands that patchwork better than most. He cannot vote in the state of Florida, nor sit for the Bar Exam after he completes his education.
Meade likens his experience to that of former slaves. Many had to cross state lines to enjoy the freedoms afforded to everyone else.
“That’s one thing that people like me have to do,” Meade said in remarks during the hearing. “We have to escape from one state to another in order to really participate in this democracy.”
Cardin said movement on the bill is possible in the Senate, but will require lawmakers to look at the humanity of the issue.
“I would think that we want people to reintegrate into society in a productive way,” Cardin said. “Therefore we want them to have jobs, to have training, to have support to deal with their health issues. And we want them to fully participate.”
Contact Loop21 staff writer Aaron Morrison at 347-855-3140 or firstname.lastname@example.org.