Cross-Posted at Project Vote's Voting Matter's Blog
Weekly Voting Rights News Update
by Erin Ferns
The 2008 presidential election was an inspiration for many citizens to take part in the American democratic process, including first-time voter and convicted felon Eric Stephen Willems of Minnesota. Unfortunately, that vote cost Willems, who was on probation, a trip back to jail, according to the Associated Press last week.
Before voting on Election Day, Willems left a telephone message with his probation officer of his plans to vote, as he was required to do under "intensive supervised release." He was later called back and informed that he had just committed a felony.
When asked if he had been informed of his loss of voting rights upon release from prison, (a commonly neglected procedure that often leaves former felons confused and unnecessarily disenfranchised or, in Willems' case, casting illegal votes) Willems claims he "must have gapped out" that information.
"I was just excited that the presidential election was coming up and I would be able to vote," Willems said. "I had never voted in my life."
Like many states, Minnesota disenfranchises convicted felons until all terms of their sentences are complete, an issue that advocates and lawmakers have long battled over, weighing the cost of stripping citizens who have already paid their debt to society of their civil rights and the subsequent impact it has on social re-integration.
This year looks promising for disenfranchisement reform as "the issue continued to garner editorial support in the media, gain legislative momentum from policymakers, and catch the attention of researchers and advocates alike" in 2008, according to criminal justice public policy group, the Sentencing Project in a recent news report.
Today, more than five million people are not allowed to vote as a result of felony conviction. "As many as four million of these people live, work and raise families in our communities, but because of a conviction in their past they are still denied the right to vote," according to a 2008 report by Erika Wood of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a leading advocate for automatic post-incarceration restoration of voting rights "in each of the 35 states that still disenfranchise people who are no longer in prison."
Under a system of automatic post-incarceration restoration of rights, "citizens released from prison would be immediately eligible to vote while on probation and parole, as are those who are sentenced to probation without serving any time in prison," wrote Wood. "These citizens would be permitted to register in precisely the same way as other eligible citizens, without submission of special paperwork."
"Restoring the right to vote to ex-offenders is an integral aspect of reintegration into society," according to a 2007 Project Vote report, which notes a disproportionate over-representation of low-income and minority citizens in the criminal justice system. "Consistent policies are necessary to prevent large-scale disenfranchisement not only of the ex-offenders themselves, but also of the communities to which they belong. Society as a whole benefits when a representative government truly represents all its citizens."
While advocates like the Brennan Center push for such reforms, expanding voting rights to all citizens – including former felons - has become the focus of lawmakers on the both the state and federal levels. Since 1997, 19 states have amended felon disenfranchisement policies, leading to the restoration of voting rights for at least 760,000 people, according to a 2008 Sentencing Project report.
Last fall, two federal bills were introduced to secure the federal voting rights of individuals who are no longer incarcerated. Although neither bill progressed in the Congress, another bill was introduced for the 2009 session just last week. House Bill 59, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Jackson (D-IL), is currently in the Judiciary committee. On the state level, several legislatures are pre-filing and introducing bills related to felon voting rights, most of which are designed to reduce current restrictions. For example, Wyoming Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) is sponsoring a bill to reduce the waiting period for non-violent criminals to restore their voting rights, according to local publication, the Caspar Star-Tribune. Currently, all former felons in Wyoming must wait five years to have their voting rights restored.
States considering legislation to expand voting rights to certain felons include Georgia, Kentucky (which currently is one of two states to permanently disenfranchise felons), New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Virginia. At this time, Mississippi is the only state to introduce legislation to increase felon voting restrictions (S 2443 and SCR 514). Visit www.electionlegislation.org for more information on these bills.
Felon Voting Laws By State. Project Vote. 12 Sept. 2008.
Restoring Voting Rights to Former Felons. Project Vote. 2007.
In Other News:
Federal panel upholds Georgia voter ID requirement – Associated Press
ATLANTA - An oft-challenged Georgia law that requires voters to show photo identification before they cast their ballots was again upheld Wednesday, this time by a federal appeals panel.
Early partisan bitterness erupts in Texas Senate over voter identification laws – Associated Press
AUSTIN -- It didn't take long for partisan bitterness and the simmering battle over voter identification laws to mar what was supposed to be a peaceful start of the 2009 Texas Legislature.
Mills wants birth certificate required for voter registration - Gainesville Times [Ga.]
GAINESVILLE - State Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, introduced a bill Monday that would require voters registering for the first time to present their birth certificate.
Bill to ban election-day voter registration swamped by opponents - Billings Gazette [Mont.]
HELENA - Groups representing college students, the elderly, American Indians, women, labor unions and environmentalists turned out in force Tuesday to oppose a Bozeman Republican's bill that would no longer allow people to register to vote on Election Day.