Saturday, March 27, 2010

Forget Obama. Pass the Act!

Adam Serwer at the American Prospect has written a piece entitled, "Ending the Eternal Sentence." It observes that Congress is considering the Democratic Restoration Act, which would restore federal voting rights to felons upon release. Currently, the right to vote - believe it or not - cannot be restored short of receiving a presidential pardon - a constitutional duty the Obama administration apparently has zero time for.

According to Serwer, at the state level, there is some variation.  Maine and Vermont allow their imprisoned populations to vote:
Some states restore voting rights at the moment of release, and some do it after parole or probation. Other states do not restore voting rights to those who have committed certain types of crimes or after more than one conviction. Virginia and Kentucky permanently disenfranchise the formerly incarcerated, except in cases of executive clemency.
The Democracy Restoration Act would clean up the daily concerns of Justice so easily neglected by Presidents focused on electoral calculations and popularity / approval ratings. Federal voting rights would be restored upon release and states would notify individuals of their right to vote. Serwer also notes:
Felony disenfranchisement laws also disproportionately affect African Americans, because African Americans form a disproportionately large part of people convicted of crimes. Though only 13 percent of monthly drug users are black, they make up 56 percent of drug convictions. Eight percent of black Americans are disenfranchised because of prior convictions; 13 percent of black men are ineligible to vote, more than seven times the national average. The disparate impact on black Americans is by design. "Many of these laws were put in place right at the time of reconstruction ... right along with poll taxes and literacy tests," says Erika Wood, director of the Brennan Center's democracy program and author of the 2008 report. "They were intended to prevent African Americans from voting." This isn't just true of the South, Wood explains. During the 1800s, New York went out of its way to disenfranchise black voters.
But, Serwer notes, bipartisan agreement on the Act "may be hard to reach."  Opponents note "Criminals lose their right to vote because of their own conscious actions in breaking the law, not because of their race" and are also concerned about the impact of the law on state and federal relations. See story here.

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