This election year voting rights
laws have turned into a heated issue as civil rights groups and state
legislatures fight over photo ID requirements. While that issue has received a
lot of attention, the larger problem of felon disenfranchisement laws has
attracted less concern despite the potential millions of votes at stake.
According to the nonprofit organization VOTE, individuals in Tennessee who have been convicted of a felony are
ineligible to vote while incarcerated, on parole, or on probation. Those people
convicted since 1981- except for some felonies such as murder, rape, treason
and voter fraud - may apply to the Board of Probation and Parole to have their
voting rights restored once their sentence is completed. However, their felony
charge remains on their records even if their application is approved. As of
July 1 of this year, one-time felons also can restore their rights by expunging
the charge from their records.
While the law in Tennessee is
relatively straightforward, that is not the case across the country. Instead, a
patchwork of restrictions exist which prevent nearly 5.85 million people with
felony convictions from voting. A report released by The Sentencing Project, a
Washington, D.C., criminal justice reform advocacy group, reveals that the laws
also disproportionately affect some races more than others.
Highlighting the varied laws, a
felon in Maine is allowed to vote from prison using an absentee ballot, while a
felon convicted of the same crime in Florida might never be allowed to vote,
even after having been released from prison. Laws vary widely across the
country dealing with how felons lose their voting rights and under what
circumstances they can be restored. In Mississippi, there are 22 categories of
crime that result in disenfranchisement. Timber larceny is included on the list
while manslaughter is not. Adding even more hoops to jump through, the state
laws say that felons who want their voting rights back must be approved by a
two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature, and the governor can then
either sign or veto the measure.
Those people who are eager for
legal reform argue that voting is a crucial step in integrating criminals back
into their communities. They point out that voting is a critical part of
citizenship and disenfranchising millions of people is not a good way to make
people productive members of society.
Advocates for legal change point
out that minorities are far more likely to be affected by these laws than white
criminals. Given that black people make up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population,
but 37.9 percent of those in federal and state prisons, an overwhelmingly large
number of black people are denied the right to vote when compared to other
Disenfranchisement also impacts
the national political debate by removing millions of possible constituents
from the voter rolls. Things like welfare reform and progressive taxation are
all issues that affect this group of citizens, but their voices will not be
heard given current laws.
Attempts have been made to
rectify the situation, with legislation being proposed in Congress to create a
national standard. Just this year Democrats introduced the Voter Empowerment
Act which proposed sweeping changes in how federal elections are conducted and
would let felons who are out of prison vote in federal elections. The measure
went nowhere as politicians eager to seem tough on crime defeated it.
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