SSDP aids campaign to win voting rights for ex-felons

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Rhode Island Right to Vote Campaign, led by the Family Life Center and supported by Brown’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy, is working hard to convince Rhode Islanders that extending voting rights to ex-felons will benefit communities and underscore the state’s commitment to civil rights. In the coming months, both Brown students and campaign organizers will redouble their efforts as they push for a November ballot measure that, if approved, would restore voting rights at the end of a criminal’s incarceration period.

The campaign has spent the past two years lobbying to enfranchise ex-felons. Since the state constitution was amended in 1987, felons released from prison cannot vote while on probation. Though this period varies for individual cases, probation periods typically last at least the length of a criminal’s prison sentence, according to SSDP Right to Vote Co-Chair Chris Suarez ’07. Currently, 13,000 ex-felons who are “living and working in Rhode Island” cannot vote, according to campaign literature.

Community Outreach Co-ordinator Andreas Idarraga ’08 – the “voice of Rhode Island’s Right to Vote Campaign,” according to Suarez’s co-chair Ariel Werner ’09 – is fighting to regain his own political voice. The 28-year-old Brown student and activist will not be able to vote for 30 years due to his probation. After an arrest for possession of drugs and firearms at age 20, Idarraga spent six and a half years at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Facility.

In prison, he realized that he “wanted involvement for the betterment of (my) community. You feel like your community is in trouble and instead of adding to that trouble … you want to make a difference.”

Upon release, he sent in college applications for the first time in his life and was accepted to the University of Rhode Island for Fall 2004. He became involved in Brown’s chapter of SSDP and began helping at the Family Life Center, where he counseled recently released ex-felons. This fall, he transferred to Brown.

Idarraga currently serves as a speaker for the campaign at a variety of political and social events. He uses his own and others’ personal stories to illustrate how voting laws affect individual lives.

When taking the U.S. citizenship test, several of Idarraga’s family members, immigrants from Colombia, were asked about the most important right they would gain as a citizen. “The answer is the right to vote,” Idarraga said. “If this is the most important right you have as citizen … that should never be played with.”

The Political Punishment Report published by Marshall Clement ’03 and Nina Keough ‘06.5 in spring 2004 was the spark that generated the campaign in Rhode Island. It was a state-level expression of a nationwide response to the “racial disparities and voting rights” issues of the 2000 presidential election, Keough said.

In June 2005, the Rhode Island legislature approved submitting a referendum to Rhode Island voters that would amend the constitution and allow ex-felons to vote. Since this success at the legislative level, the Right to Vote Campaign has been working to raise public awareness of the referendum and provide statistics about the negative effects of incarceration on the community and the need to protest ex-felons’ civil rights.

SSDP is the only group at Brown actively supporting the campaign, according to Werner, though SSDP has worked with the Brown Democrats’ Voter Registration Committee. Members work on the campaign in coordination with the Family Life Center, a facility in Providence that helps ex-felons re-integrate after release from prison. The Family Life Center has spearheaded the campaign statewide.

Right to Vote issues are especially pertinent for SSDP because felons convicted on drug charges often lose their right to vote for decades due to minimum probation sentences, according to Idarraga. 40 percent of prisoners in Rhode Island are incarcerated for nonviolent or drug offenses, according to the Political Punishment Report.

SSDP members have phoned legislators, helped organize events and forums about incarceration and canvassed in Providence neighborhoods, said Werner and Suarez.

“People need to be informed before (the referendum) gets passed,” Suarez said. “When they see (the law) is disproportionately affecting communities, they see that there’s more a type of social justice of this being right or wrong.”

One in five black men is disenfranchised in Rhode Island, according to the Political Punishment Report. For Latino men, the statistic is one in 11. More than 10 percent of South Providence residents are disenfranchised.

Suarez and Werner blamed the criminal justice system for the disproportionate effects on racial minorities, pointing to a systemic pattern of racism.

“This is just a way in which these rich white men who control the state can keep minorities from voting,” Werner said. “It’s so imperative that we give these people a voice in our politics.”

SSDP campaign leaders are optimistic that the amendment will pass. Werner and Suarez said the campaign has been well received by legislators and citizens alike. Suarez said most senators “see it as a politically risky move” to support the amendment without definite backing from their constituents, but added that no senators have spoken out strongly against the amendment. Idarraga said no organized opposition has materialized.

“Once people’s questions are answered intelligently, they realize, ‘What’s the danger in giving a person that was in prison the right to vote?'” Idarraga said. “If anything, when a democracy excludes a portion of its citizens, that’s when it becomes dangerous.”