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Cross-posted to Project Vote’s Voting Matters Blog

The message that democracy works best when all citizens participate – including those reintegrating into society after serving time for felony convictions - is finally being heard by the public, the media, and the U.S. Congress. Whether the message will affect the change needed to enfranchise the millions of Americans who currently cannot represent their communities in the democratic process, it is encouraging to find more citizens recognize the value in voting rights restoration and its impact on rehabilitation.

In light of the July 24 introduction of the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009, which would restore federal voting rights of felons who have been released from incarceration, numerous media outlets and voting rights advocates appear inspired to speak out on the importance of felon voting rights in general.

Calling it "an overdue change" for the 33 states that strip felons of their voting rights post-incarceration, the Detroit Free Press hails the federal bills, HR 3335 and S 1516 as a solution to inequity in both the criminal justice system and voting rights, particularly regarding minorities and the communities to which they return. Of the five million disenfranchised Americans, "nearly two million of them, including more than one in eight black men, are disenfranchised by these vestiges of Jim Crow."

"Democracy requires that voting rights extend to as many people as possible," the Free Press editorialized. "Voting rights rebuild ties to the community. They give people a stake in society and connect them to its norms and values."

The notion that "restoring voting rights of the formerly incarcerated is essential to helping them reintegrate into society and become productive citizens," is widely gaining support, Kathryn Boockvar, a Pennsylvania-based attorney for the Advancement Project, wrote in the Patriot-News. Boockvar, who was writing in support of a state measure requiring prisons to provide released felons with voter registration materials (HB 1072), noted a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice, which cites a 2006 survey that found 60 percent of Americans agree with this idea.

Such a proposal has become law in at least two states in recent years. In May, the state of Washington lifted a ban that prohibited thousands of felons from voting with the passage of House Bill 1517. Until a couple weeks ago, the state required all felons to fully complete their sentences and repay all legal financial obligations before they were eligible to vote, according to the ACLU Blog of Rights. Blogger Rachel Bloom told the story of a man she called "John," who had "completed his sentence yet remained disfranchised because he had outstanding legal financial obligations, of which almost two-thirds was interest."

"When asked why he wanted to vote, John said he had two reasons: ‘I’m raising my grandkids. It’s been a cycle of jails and institutions for them and I want to show them a different picture...I want to show them what being included in society looks like and yet I can’t provide that while being disfranchised. The other reason is that I personally want a say. Right now, I’m being taxed without representation.’"

A 2006 change in the Rhode Island Constitution allowing probationers and parolees to vote brought about 6,000 more registered voters in the 2008 elections, according to the Providence Journal. The law had previously disenfranchised an estimated 15,000 people who were serving probationary terms that could "run a decade or more in some cases."

"Despite changing laws, there were still many hurdles to getting people back on the rolls," wrote Desiree Evans of Facing South, an online magazine for the Institute of Southern Studies. "For instance, some former felons were unaware and uninformed of the reinstatement of their right to vote in some states. And in other states complicated re-enfranchisement procedures on top of widespread confusion and misinformation about the proper administration of the varying state laws made the process of restoring the vote even more difficult."  

Although the fight for restoration of voting rights remains an uphill battle, "voting rights advocates should keep fighting in the courts, state legislatures and Congress," the New York Times editorialized on August 4, noting a federal court’s decision to uphold the Massachusetts ban on voting by convicted felons. A group of prisoners challenged the law, claiming it violated the Voting Rights Act because disenfranchised felons in Mass. are "disproportionately black and Hispanic... partly because of a bias in the justice system."

"Letting the case go forward would not have meant the prisoners would have won," the Times said. "But it would have recognized that the law could violate the Voting Rights Act, depending on the facts that emerged about it in court."

Whether felon voting rights will be changed through state and federal legislation, or through review of the cornerstone Voting Rights Act, one notion remains the same. "The United States aspires to be a nation in which the government rules by the consent of the governed people," the Times wrote. "Prisoners do not cease to be people."

Originally posted to Project Vote on Thu Aug 13, 2009 at 12:18 PM PDT.

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