Is There Hope for Ex-Cons Who Want the Right to Vote?
3 months ago
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.