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  Voting Rights for Felons Win Support

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 1999; Page A1

TAMPA—Alarmed by the staggering number of people who are barred from voting because of past criminal convictions, legislators in an increasing number of states are advocating proposals to allow felons to return to the voting booth.

The issue, long touted by prisoner rights advocates, is finding support among mainstream civil rights organizations and political leaders who argue that the crazy quilt of state laws that bar felons from voting not only constitutes unfair punishment but also has the potential to shut entire communities out of the political process because such a large proportion of their citizens cannot vote.

That is especially true for African American men, 13 percent of whom are ineligible to vote because of criminal convictions, according to a recent study conducted jointly by the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, both well-known research organizations. In 10 states, more than one in five black men are barred from voting because of their criminal records.

Winning back voting rights for those with felony convictions, from murder to passing a bad check, will not be a simple task. Indeed, it is already evident that the effort faces stiff opposition from those who reject the notion that criminals are entitled to the same voting rights as everyone else. But it is also clear that, in several states, the momentum to change the system has never been stronger.

In Florida, a bill has been introduced in the state legislature that would allow felons to regain their voting rights automatically one year after they complete their sentences, including probation. Currently, felons in Florida are barred for life from voting unless their rights are restored by a governor's pardon.

That state is a prime target for civil rights groups because one-third of the nation's disenfranchised felons reside there and an estimated 31 percent of the state's black men are barred from voting. "The numbers just sort of leap out at you," said Florida state Sen. James Hargrett (D), a co-sponsor of the legislation. "They are really shocking."

Supporters say the proposal is beginning to gain support, including the qualified backing of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. The new governor, who benefited from high-profile black support during his election campaign last year, has voiced support for the measure as long as it leaves the state with the discretion to withhold rights from felons whose crimes were deemed particularly egregious.

Although restoring voting privileges has more support among Democrats than Republicans, the sheer scope of the problem is beginning to draw interest to an issue long championed mainly by liberals. Many moderates in both parties are also reluctant to reject the idea for fear of appearing racist, given the felony voting laws' disproportionate effect on minorities.

To appeal to these legislators, advocates argue that disenfranchisement laws conflict with basic notions of justice and discourage what society ought to be promoting: that criminals who have completed their sentences be allowed to return to society as productive citizens. Still, supporters acknowledge that the issue faces an uphill fight, if only because it can easily be misconstrued as soft on crime at a time when the general public sentiment is moving in the opposite direction.

"You probably are going to see a cautious approach to this, even among most of the Democrats," said John F. Cosgrove, the second-ranking Democrat in the Florida House of Representatives, who generally supports the measure. "The Republicans will be less inclined to do anything."

Cosgrove said Florida's current system, which allows felons to apply to have their voting rights restored, is cumbersome and in need of change. "This could be a real test as to whether compassionate conservatism works in the marketplace," he said.

The legislation in Florida, where several public interest lawyers are exploring civil rights lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of criminal disenfranchisement laws, mirrors efforts elsewhere. Texas, where an estimated 4.5 percent of the adult population and 21 percent of the black male population are disenfranchised, has eliminated the two-year waiting period previously required before a felon could apply for restoration of voting rights.

In Alabama, where 7.5 percent of adults and nearly 31.5 percent of African American men are banned from voting, legislation to make it easier to restore voting rights for felons failed on a tie vote in the lower chamber of the state legislature last year. Sponsors say they are optimistic that a similar measure will succeed this year.

Rates of disenfranchisement vary widely from state to state. In 46 states and the District of Columbia, felons are prohibited from voting while in prison. In addition, 32 states prohibit offenders from voting while on parole and 29 bar voting while on probation. Felons are barred for life from voting in 14 states, a prohibition that can be waived only through a gubernatorial pardon or some other form of clemency. Only four states -- Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont -- allow prison inmates to vote.

Locally, District felons are barred from voting while in prison, leaving 7 percent of the city's black men without that right. In Maryland, felons in prison, on probation or on parole cannot vote, and second-time offenders lose the right to vote for life. Fifteen percent of Maryland's black men are barred from voting. Virginia permanently denies felons the right to vote, a prohibition that disenfranchises one in four of the state's black men.

The practice of stripping criminals of their civil rights is rooted in ancient Greek and Roman traditions and has always been a part of U.S. law. Some scholars have pointed out that in several states those laws were honed with racist intent. "Many southern states tailored their criminal disenfranchisement laws, along with other voting qualifications, to increase the effect of these laws on black citizens," Andrew L. Shapiro wrote in a 1993 Yale Law Review article. Shapiro said that toward the end of the last century, disenfranchisement laws were often crafted to include crimes that blacks supposedly committed more frequently than whites.

In recent times, the increasing racial disparity among the disenfranchised has been a consequence not of racist laws but of the dramatic rise in the number of African Americans being incarcerated. Since the widespread imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, "three-strikes" laws and other anti-crime measures over the past decade, the proportion of black men who are incarcerated has increased 10 times faster than for whites. The biggest contributor to the explosion in the prison population has been people convicted of drug charges. Those arrested on drug charges were almost five times as likely to be sent to prison in 1992 than in 1980, and drug arrests almost doubled during that time period, according to the Justice Department.

While national surveys have found that drug use and distribution cut across racial lines, blacks are arrested for drug crimes at six times the rate of whites. From 1990 to 1996, 82 percent of the increase in the number of black inmates in federal prisons was due to drug offenses, the Justice Department said.

"The statistics on this issue are really frightening. . . . With the huge number of people disenfranchised, you're really not open to all of the citizenry in making decisions," said Alabama state Rep. Yvonne Kennedy (D), who has filed a bill to make it easier for a felon to regain voting rights in Alabama. "That is very alarming. I think that is getting the attention of many legislators."

Kennedy called the current process for restoring voting rights in Alabama needlessly restrictive. A felon in Alabama can have voting rights restored only after completing all the terms of the sentence and then filing a three-page application with the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles, which also requires a blood sample for a DNA test.

Calling the form intimidating, Jerome A. Gray, an official with the Alabama Democratic Conference, an activist group working to make it easier for felons to regain the right to vote, said, "The question is: At what point does the state's hold on inmates cease?"

Others, however, say it is fair to treat felons differently from the rest of society. "It is not asking too much for these folks to petition to have their rights restored," said Alabama state Rep. Michael D. Rogers (R), who last year opposed efforts to ease the process for restoring felon rights.

The sharp increase in the number of disenfranchised people has prompted major civil rights groups, including Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and the NAACP, to make restoring voting rights for felons a priority. The effort also is supported by a panoply of national religious organizations, including the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and the National Council of Churches.

But they face difficult hurdles, not only among legislators who see such measures as soft on crime but among Republicans who see little incentive to empower a potential group of voters who, if they follow established patterns, are likely to vote Democratic.

Recently, Virginia legislators killed an effort to liberalize that state's process for restoring voter rights. Similar bills have met the same fate in past years. Likewise, several congressional efforts aimed at standardizing the process states use to restore voting rights for felons in federal elections have failed in recent years.

But supporters believe those measures will be taken more seriously once legislators fully realize the huge number of people being pushed off the voter rolls because of their criminal past.

"The process of voting is one of the most sacred processes in our democracy," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau. "Our hope is that former inmates will participate fully in our democracy, take ownership of their communities and become law-abiding citizens. The right to vote is fundamental to that."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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