Despite two centuries of a national history extending the right to vote to ever more Americans, state legislatures have recently passed a flurry of laws that make voting more difficult. Some require government-issued photo identification cards; others are obstructing early voting or restricting voter registration drives. It's time for Congress to protect the rights citizens of a democracy hold most dear and create the opportunity for greater citizen participation. Members can begin by opening up the voter rolls to the four million Americans covered by the Democracy Restoration Act.
Introduced by Senator Ben Cardin from Maryland and Representative John Conyers from Michigan, the Democracy Restoration Act is legislation that would restore voting rights in federal elections to Americans disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions. It is based on a simple truth: restore the right to vote and you restore a formerly disenfranchised citizen's stake in the community, boosting the chances of a successful reentry into mainstream society. Withhold it and you send a powerful message that individuals with past criminal convictions are not welcome to rejoin our democracy.
At the heart of our criminal justice system is a belief in rehabilitation and redemption. A person who has committed a crime could lose his or her liberty for a period of time. But when the criminal justice system decides she or he can appropriately live among us, we cannot expect a person to work, pay taxes and assimilate back into the community if he or she is not afforded a voice in how that society is governed. This is not only unfair; it is counterproductive to making the nation safer and more democratic.
State disenfranchisement laws have a profound impact on minorities. Nationwide, an estimated 13 percent of African-American men have lost the right to vote because of spending time in prison, a rate that is seven times the national average. Given current rates of incarceration, three in ten of the next generation of African-American men can expect to lose the right to vote at some point in their lifetimes.
There was a time in our country's history when the right to vote was limited to propertied white men, but the United States has since followed an arc tilted firmly toward suffrage. By the end of the 1800s, most states had abolished property qualifications for voting and the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchised African-American men. By the end of the 1900s, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, poll taxes and prohibitions against voting by women and Native Americans had ended. The present-day disenfranchisement of citizens with criminal histories, rooted in our country's Jim Crow laws, does violence to our country's trajectory towards a more inclusive democracy.
Voting helps transform a former prisoner from an outsider into a law-abiding citizen. Indeed, studies show that those who cast a ballot are less likely to commit another crime. Because the Democracy Restoration Act bolsters public safety, the bill has garnered the support of law enforcement agencies, including the American Probation and Parole Association and the American Correctional Association. Law enforcement and reentry professionals recognize that creating community ties through participatory roles such as voting integrates an individual back into a society after a criminal conviction.
The legislation has also won the endorsement of secular organizations like the American Bar Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; and a variety of faith-based organizations including the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because the Democracy Restoration Act delivers on the promises of redemption and rehabilitation.
Finally, the Democracy Restoration Act would ease administrative confusion over voter eligibility and eliminate the inconsistencies that result from the states' myriad of disenfranchisement laws. Every individual with a past conviction is allowed to vote in Maine and Vermont, while one in Kentucky or Virginia faces permanent disenfranchisement unless he or she is granted discretionary clemency. The vast majority of states fall somewhere in between these two extremes, leading to complex eligibility requirements that often bewilder local election officials and create misconceptions among people with prior criminal records about their own eligibility. It is an inequity to which we cannot subject citizens any longer.
Up until this past year, states have been the engines behind reducing voting restrictions on persons with criminal convictions. Yet, for the millions of Americans who remain disenfranchised, the nation remains a patchwork of regulation and the recent wave of restrictive voting laws passed by state legislatures offers little hope that further liberalization will happen in the states any time soon. Congressional action is our best hope to redress these inequities in the short run.
Myrna Pérez is Senior Counsel and Lee Rowland is Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program.
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