Is There Hope for Ex-Cons Who Want the Right to Vote?
Two months after the presidential election, the cause of felony disenfranchisment gains momentum on the state level across the country.
At 18, Mike Orlando couldn't earn close to the money he was making selling drugs. His minimum wage job in Brevard County, Florida, southeast of Orlando, could barely cover the bills.
Desperate to earn more income, he began selling marijuana. But his life changed when he was arrested and convicted for attempting to sell the illegal substance to an undercover police officer. He spent a year in jail.
It was a wake up call for the New York City transplant. Now 25, he is a paralegal studies student at Valencia College in Orlando. While he hasn't been in trouble since, he still doesn't have the right to vote.
"How can I be taken seriously in a political world without being able to vote?” he asks.
Two months after President Obama was elected to a second term, many ex-felons are wondering if they will ever get the chance to cast a ballot again. While it's been close to 50 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the disenfranchisement of ex-cons remains a contentious issue.
According to The Sentencing Project, approximately six million people are unable to vote because of felony criminal records. Given 60 percent of those incarcerated are minorities, one in 13 African Americans cannot vote. In 11 states, a person can lose his right to vote for life.
“It’s fundamentally an issue of fairness,” argues Sentencing Project executive director Marc Mauer. “When it came to establishing the right to vote for women, or African-Americans as a whole, it wasn’t an issue of who each one would vote for in an election. It was about being fair and doing the right thing, which is the same for those individuals who’ve paid their debts to society for criminal behavior, and served their time.”
In the 2010 Washington state court case, Farrakhan v Gregoire, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund argued to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that felony disenfranchisement laws violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, essentially because the state’s criminal justice system discriminated against black, Latino and Native American felons who make up a disproportionate number in the criminal justice system.
“The (court) said you have to be able to show discriminatory racial intent,” says Nancy Abudu, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in the case.
Abudu says the NAACP tried to link the racial disparities in the justice system to the impact on voting rights. The question is whether felon disenfranchisement was meant to be covered under the Voting Rights Act in the first place, she says.
"The initial ruling was ‘yes,’ on the issue of disenfranchisement law violating the Voting Rights Act and being racially biased, but the final ruling stated that before one could bring such a claim, you have to show intentional racial discrimination in the justice system.”
Speaking at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston last December, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder suggested creating national uniform voting standards, which directly address felony disenfranchisement and other obstacles such as identification requirements.
He noted that a November 2012 MacArthur Foundation survey found that 90 percent of the people who voted in that month’s elections supported national voting standards.
“It is important for national leaders, academic experts, and members of the public to engage in a frank, thorough, and inclusive discussion about how our election systems can be made stronger and more accessible," he said.
Advocates point to Iowa and Virginia as encouraging signs that one day voting rights will be reinstated for ex-felons.
Last month, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad lifted some of the restrictions on voting for felons that he had enacted a year earlier. He had imposed the restrictions in 2011, after replacing Tom Vilsack, who signed an executive order in 2005 granting voting rights to felons who had served their sentences.
Over the last two years 8,000 ex-offenders have been eligible to vote in Iowa.
The concessions made by Branstad included simplified instructions for voter applicants, removal of a credit history check, and contact information to free resources for those applying.
“What happened in Iowa is very little progress, as these things go,” observes Mauer of the Sentencing Project. “The prior governor there had basically said everyone can vote, so with Branstad there’s still a complicated process for enfranchisement.”
On the other side of the country in Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell called for the full restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons in his annual State of the Commonwealth address last week. Under his term, more than 4,400 Virginians regained their right to vote.
But 450,000 people are still ineligible because of their convictions.
Four days after McDonnell’s address, the state’s House of Delegates killed the proposal, though the state Senate could take up the measure and then send it to the House.
“Your charge should determine when, or if, you get the right to vote back. Right now, there’s no difference in what I did in selling marijuana with someone who rapes a 5-year-old girl. Still, I do feel thankful because I have more drive now to be better than average. Not being enfranchised, I’m much more driven to make a difference socially, and politically.”