It turns out democracy breeds strange bedfellows. On Friday, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009, a bill that seeks to restore voting rights in federal elections to nearly 4 million American citizens with past criminal convictions who are out of prison and living in the community. Who would have thought that police chiefs and former prison inmates would ever unite behind the same cause? But that’s exactly what is happening. A large and growing coalition of diverse interests including law enforcement officers, religious leaders, civil rights organizations and millions of formerly incarcerated people across the country has come together to restore the right to vote. Now members of Congress have joined the crowd.
Nationwide, 5.3. million Americans are disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction in their past. Four million are people who are out of prison and living in the community — working, paying taxes and raising families. All told, 35 states continue to disenfranchise people who are not in prison, often for decades and sometimes for life.
Make no mistake, criminal disenfranchisement laws are firmly rooted in Jim Crow. They were put in place right alongside poll taxes and literacy tests and were intended to keep African Americans from the polls. Many states passed criminal disenfranchisement laws at the end of Reconstruction and targeted crimes most likely to be committed by freed slaves like larceny, bigamy and vagrancy. Today the laws continue to have their intended effect: nationwide 13% of African-American men are disenfranchised. If current incarceration rates continue, 1 in 3 African-American men will lose the right to vote at some point in their lives.
Criminal disenfranchisement laws form a patchwork across the country. Consider for example, people in Kentucky lose the right to vote for life, while just across the border in Ohio and Indiana people can vote the day they step out of prison. Someone in Utah can vote as long as he is not in prison, while in Colorado he could vote while on probation but not on parole; in New Mexico he would have to complete both probation and parole, and in Arizona he could be disenfranchised for life. It is no wonder both election officials and the public are confused, resulting in widespread and persistent misinformation and the de facto disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of eligible voters across the country.
The shameful roots of these laws and the conflicting standards among the states are just two factors that highlight the need for federal reform. The Democracy Restoration Act provides just that: It would restore voting rights in federal elections to every American citizen who is out of prison, living in the community.
The foundation for the bill has been steadily building in the states. In the last decade, 20 states have restored voting rights or eased the restoration process. This groundswell has created a national chorus calling for change which now includes law enforcement and criminal justice professionals and a broad spectrum of religious leaders. These groups have come together based on a shared understanding that restoring voting rights to people in the community not only strengthens our democracy, it helps prevent recidivism, protects public safety and is true to the fundamental principles of redemption and forgiveness.
The importance of having a voice in the community is most aptly described by those who have found theirs. The recent Brennan Center publication My First Vote is a compilation of stories from Americans who voted for the first time in November 2008 after having lost, and then regained, their voting rights after a conviction. According to a mother in California who is featured in the collection, “voting isn’t entirely about the candidate who wins; it’s about the inspiration and hope people feel when they have a voice they can use to bring real change.”
The Democracy Restoration Act has just been introduced, and it is still full of inspiration and hope. Congress should move quickly to make it the law of the land. Strange bedfellows agree.