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 races.
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.
(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 266-0605.)