Restoring Felon Voting Rights Should be a National Campaign Issue


The debate over restoring voting rights for felons must be about truth and reconciliation, not partisan politics.

Those who understand the numbers don’t dispute this. The racial disparity in our criminal justice system is contaminating our politics. Nationally, 1-in-13 African-Americans cannot vote because of a criminal record. In Florida, a staggering 1 in 5 black adults are disenfranchised.

Compare that with non-black voters in America: Only 1 in 56 are ineligible to cast a vote. Some are probably consoled that white-collar convictions hit a 20-year low in 2018.

These numbers are vestiges of the Black Codes, Jim Crow, segregation, racial subordination, and of mass incarceration. These are real costs. We never told the truth of what disenfranchisement does to some communities of color, or sought to reconcile what it does to people who have been reduced to second-class citizenship.

So it is good that the 2020 presidential candidates regard the restoration of felon voting rights as a campaign issue, which has bipartisan support in some of the reddest states.

But now the challenge is to prevent demagogues from using the issue as a political wedge, which tends to work on pearl-clutchers and knuckle-draggers alike.

Sen. Bernie Sanders got the conversation started by asserting that all prison inmates should be allowed to vote, because that is the way it is done in his home state of Vermont and in Maine.

Here’s a better conversation starter: Only 15 states grant the right to vote to those on parole or probation, including Utah and Indiana. Why can’t all 50 do at least that much?

New Jersey, to our everlasting shame, does neither. We have 58,000 citizens on probation – people who have never seen the inside of a jail – who cannot vote. Nor can the 15,000 New Jerseyans on parole. They already served their time, yet cannot vote. A bill that would remedy that has been stalled in the Assembly for more than a year.

But Sanders took the national discussion beyond where many are ready to go, by endorsing the inalienable right to vote for even violent inmates. He could have said non-violent people serving time are worth a discussion, if only to give most of the 2.3 million people in the U.S. prison system some hope – and real hope to the 3.7 million around the country who are denied the franchise because they are on probation or parole.

So the tenor shifted in every town hall last week, and an issue of social justice became muted as each candidate was asked whether the Boston Marathon bomber should be allowed to vote.

We found this tweet from Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) spot-on for the occasion: “Don’t dare invoke one of the darkest days of terrorism in MY city to stoke fear and derail a meaningful conversation about fundamental rights & what justice looks like for the thousands of black & brown folks who are stripped of their liberty & civic participation for minor offenses,” she wrote.

The real issues are truth and reconciliation, she meant.

Many states, like New Jersey, have a long way to go. Florida is the worst: Last November, by a 2-to-1 bipartisan majority, voters approved an amendment that allowed people who committed felonies (except murders and sex crimes) the right to vote after they completed their sentence. But the Republican legislature has since passed a law that requires felons to pay court fees, fines, and restitution before they can vote.

Yes, a poll tax. Jim Crow rides again.

That’s why we need a national conversation, and candidates are willing to have it. Pete Buttigieg is against voting rights for inmates. Beto O’Rourke backs voting rights for non-violent inmates. Kamala Harris is cautious, and wants experts to weigh in. Cory Booker says the focus should be on ending mass incarceration.

But we can agree that disenfranchisement laws work against the effort to help released prisoners turn their lives around. Denying the vote to people who have paid their debt by continuing to mark them as criminals sets them apart from the community they must rejoin. Keep the conversation going.

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