Proposed law would restore voting rights to felons

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There are currently more than 5 million American citizens who cannot vote because of a criminal conviction, say voting rights advocates, and 2 million of them are African-Americans.

“In some states, states like Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, up to a third of African-American men have lost the right to vote,” says Erika Wood, deputy director of the Democracy Program at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice.

She believes the laws are discriminatory and is fighting to change them.

“These laws are firmly rooted in the Jim Crow era,” says Wood. “They were intended to keep African-Americans from voting. They were passed right alongside poll taxes and literacy tests.”

Voting laws vary from state to state. Thirty-five states restrict voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences. Some states disenfranchise people convicted of misdemeanors.

Kenneth Harrigan is a counselor at The Fortune Society, an organization that works with the formerly incarcerated. He believes criminal convictions should not restrict voting rights.

“People on parole are forced to get a job. It’s part of your conditions,” Harrigan says. “If you’re paying taxes, you should be allowed to vote.”

A federal law called the Democracy Restoration Act was recently introduced in the House and Senate. The act would unify the state laws, restoring the right for all citizens who are not currently incarcerated. It also mandates that ex-prisoners be informed of their voting rights.

Roger Clegg is among those who see the law as contradictory. Clegg serves as president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity.

“People who are not willing to follow the law should not claim a right to make the law for everyone else,” he says. “Of course, when you vote, that’s what you’re doing. You’re making the law either directly, in the case of a ballot initiative or a referendum, or you’re making the law indirectly by choosing law-makers.”

Harrigan, however has a more personal perspective on the issue, having broken the law himself. In 1995, he was convicted on his third burglary charge and sentenced to 12 years to life. He spent a cumulative 16 years behind bars.

“While I was in there, though, it caused me to become more aware of what was happening in the political scene,” Harrigan says. “You would get a new mayor or a new governor and his views on incarceration or parole, was something that was going to directly affect me.”

Harrigan is in the demographic most likely to be impacted by these laws because of the high rate of convictions among black men. Thirteen percent of African-Americans have lost the right to vote, but not all parties believe this means the laws are discriminatory.

“I don’t think that makes the law racist any more than the fact that men are convicted much more frequently of crimes than women are would make the laws sexist,” says Clegg.

Opponents also note that the 14th amendment, which was passed during the Jim Crow era to ensure voting rights for former slaves, does not protect voting rights for criminals.

During the same era, advocates argue, laws categorized crimes with discriminatory intent, knowing that felonies would keep citizens out of the polls.

“The laws were put in place targeted at crimes that freed slaves were most likely to be arrested for – things like bigamy, vagrancy, petty larceny,” says Wood. “They continue to have their intended effects today,” says Wood.

While both sides debate the future of ex-prisoner voting, Kenneth Harrigan is committed to influencing his community, with or without a ballot.

“I used the knowledge that I had achieved from studying the issues to influence my family members, my friends and loved ones to let them know how important these issues were and how it was going to affect me and other people like me,” he says.