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ACLU representative says felons deserve voting rights

Sunday, October 3, 2004

Felons across the country are unfairly denied the right to vote, said Laleh Ispahani, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project and leader of Right to Vote: A National Campaign to End Felony Disenfranchisement.

Maine and Vermont are the only states that don’t take away any of criminals’ voting rights, while 14 states permanently disenfranchise felons and ex-felons, Ispahani said in a lecture Monday night. She called the nation a “crazy quilt” of policies, with state laws ranging from immediate restoration of the right to vote upon release from prison to permanent disenfranchisement.

The issue is particular to the United States, according to Ispahani. “We entered the 21st century with possibly the most restrictive disenfranchisement policy in the world,” she said. In Germany, felons are disenfranchised for five years if they have committed “serious legislative offenses.” And in Finland and New Zealand, disenfranchisement is limited to those caught buying or selling votes, and even then, it lasts for only two years, she said.

An Israeli court ruling stated that denying felons the right to vote would hurt not the felon but the voting system, Ispahani said. As a result, there are now polling stations set up inside Israeli prisons.

Ispahani said state laws disenfranchising felons and ex-felons are a serious threat to American democracy. The current policies are “truly criminal,” said Ispahani. “We’re effectively telling people, ‘Welcome back, pay taxes, don’t vote.'”

She cited disorganization and red tape as other factors making it especially difficult for ex-convicts to vote. “Some states require a state-issued ID to vote, … and they cost money. Many ex-felons don’t have an extra $20 or $30 to get an ID so they can vote,” she said.

There are strong racial overtones in the issue of felony disenfranchisement, Ispahani said. Sixty-seven percent of the nation’s prison population is African American or Latino, and about one-third of disenfranchised felons are AfricanAmerican men. In states that have a policy of permanent disenfranchisement, 40 percent of black men will lose their right to vote at some point during their lives.

But racial reasons for disenfranchisement are not new, Ispahani said. Historically, state laws have explicitly described their felony disenfranchisement policy as a way to keep African Americans from voting.

New Jersey’s current policy is to deny the vote to ex-convicts on parole or probation, Ispahani said. She said 81 percent of the felons in New Jersey are minorities, compared to 13 percent of the population at large. New Jersey state officials admitted that this number was disproportionate due to racial profiling, she said.

There are many reasons legislators use to justify these policies, Ispahani said. Some of these include maintaining the “purity of the ballot box” and preventing electoral fraud, she said.

But Ispahani said a clear distinction needs to be made between different types of crimes. “There may be a reason to disenfranchise a felon convicted of electoral fraud, but it’s hard to imagine why a car thief would engage in electoral fraud,” she said.

“You hear the murderer/rapist issue a lot,” she said, explaining legislators’ resistance to grant the vote to perpetrators of violent crimes. “But it’s not a criminal justice issue, it’s an issue of democracy. It’s an issue of fairness.”

Ispahani said that recently people have begun showing support for the cause of restoring felons’ right to vote, and as a result, 25 states have “significantly reformed” their disenfranchisement laws in the past year.

“Across the nation, 80 percent of Americans believe that once someone has served their time, they should be allowed to vote again,” she said.

Ispahani noted societal ignorance of laws disenfranchising felons in the context of Martha Stewart’s recent conviction. A television panel was discussing Stewart’s status as a felon when someone brought up her right to vote, Ispahani said. “Can she vote? No one knew.”

Lack of information is a widespread problem, Ispahani said. “Sometimes legislators don’t even know about the disenfranchisement laws of their own state,” she said.

One of the most important components of the Right to Vote campaign is raising awareness of the voting policies of each state. There is a need to promote education in prisons so that prisoners will have knowledge of what to do and where to go to vote when they get out, she said.

The Right to Vote campaign formed in early 2003, when many national organizations came together to “seriously make a dent,” Ispahani told the Herald. They began by focusing on five states, chosen on the basis of their current state law and the potential for change.

She said the most important message she could give would be to get involved.

“Even if you do nothing else, write about it, talk about it, get people informed about it,” she said.

Katherine Cummings ’06, a member of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and one of the organizers of the event, said she felt the problem is an important one, particularly because so few people know about it. The policies of felony disenfranchisement “don’t jibe with our idea of democracy,” she said.

The event, which drew a small audience to List 120, was sponsored by the Brown College Democrats, SSDP and the Third World Center as part of Democracy Awareness Week.

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