The Brennan Center for Justice Hails the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009

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nooseLaw enforcement will surely quibble with the numbers, but the text of identical legislation called the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009, introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in the House and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) in the Senate, would restore voting rights in federal elections to the millions of Americans who have been released from prison and are living in their communities yet remain disenfranchised from casting their ballots.

According to an email blast The Clyde Fitch Report has received, the legislation is inspired by a report issued by the Brennan Center for Justice called Restoring the Right to Vote. One of goal of the legislation is to create a universal standard by which felons whose debt to society is paid may have their voting rights duly restored.

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This map on the Brennan Center’s website illustrates what a mess, no doubt driven by politics, exists as by dint of all the state-by-state rules. For example, Kentucky and Virginia demands “permanent disenfranchisement for all people with felony convictions, unless government approves individual rights restoration.” However, California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York and South Dakota have “voting rights restored automatically after release from prison and discharge from parole,” including people on probation. Maine and Vermont don’t even disenfranchise the convicted from voting in federal elections.

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The Clyde Fitch Report believes voting is a nonpartisan issue. It’s a right that should be revoked from felons. It’s also a right that should be restored if a convicted felon’s debt to society has been paid to the satisfaction of the prison system to which he or she was entered, and to the judicial system through which he or she was tried and convicted. Simple fairness would dictate a uniform standard should be implemented. The legislation introduced by Conyers and Feingold is a good starting place for the debate to begin.

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The “findings” section of the legislation is particularly illuminating:

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(1) The right to vote is the most basic constitutive act of citizenship. Regaining the right to vote reintegrates offenders into free society, helping to enhance public safety.

(2) Article I, section 4 of the Constitution of the United States grants Congress ultimate supervisory power over Federal elections, an authority which has repeatedly been upheld by the Supreme Court.

(3) Basic constitutional principles of fairness and equal protection require an equal opportunity for Americans to vote in Federal elections. The right to vote may not be abridged or denied by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, gender or previous condition of servitude. The 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments to the Constitution empower Congress to enact measures to protect the right to vote in Federal elections.

(4) There are three areas where discrepancies in State laws regarding felony convictions lead to unfairness in Federal elections–

(A) there is no uniform standard for voting in Federal elections which leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on where a person lives;

(B) laws governing the restoration of voting rights after a felony conviction vary throughout the country and persons in some States can easily regain their voting rights while in other States persons effectively lose their right to vote permanently; and

(C) State disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities.

(5) Disenfranchisement results from varying State laws that restrict voting while under some form of criminal justice supervision or after the completion of a felony sentence in some States. Two States do not disenfranchise felons at all (Maine and Vermont). Forty-eight States and the District of Columbia have disenfranchisement laws that deprive convicted offenders of the right to vote while they are in prison. In 35 States, convicted offenders may not vote while they are on parole and 30 of these States disenfranchise felony probationers as well. In 10 States, a conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement.

(6) An estimated 5,300,000 Americans, or about 1 in 41 adults, currently cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction. Nearly 4,000,000 (74 percent) of the 5,300,000 disqualified voters are not in prison, but are on probation or parole, or are ex-offenders. Approximately 2,000,000 of those individuals are individuals who have completed their entire sentence, including probation and parole, yet remain disenfranchised.

(7) In those States that disenfranchise ex-offenders, the right to vote can be regained in theory, but in practice this possibility is often granted in a nonuniform and potentially discriminatory manner. Offenders must either obtain a pardon or order from the Governor or action by the parole or pardon board, depending on the offense and State. Offenders convicted of a Federal offense often have additional barriers to regaining voting rights.

(8) State disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities. Eight percent of the African-American population, or 2,000,000 African-Americans, are disenfranchised. Given current rates of incarceration, approximately one in three of the next generation of African-American men will be disenfranchised at some point during their lifetime. Hispanic citizens are also disproportionately disenfranchised based upon their disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system.

(9) Disenfranchising citizens who have been convicted of a felony offense and who are living and working in the community serves no compelling State interest and hinders their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

(10) State disenfranchisement laws can suppress electoral participation among eligible voters by discouraging voting among family and community members of disenfranchised persons. Future electoral participation by the children of disenfranchised parents may be impacted as well.

(11) The United States is the only Western democracy that permits the permanent denial of voting rights to individuals with felony convictions.

The Democracy Restoration Act of 2009 would enshrine into law that states would notify individuals completing their prison terms (or as otherwise characterized below) that their voting rights have been restored as follows:

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(a) State Notification-

(1) NOTIFICATION- On the date determined under paragraph (2), each State shall notify in writing any individual who has been convicted of a criminal offense under the law of that State that such individual has the right to vote in an election for Federal office pursuant to the Democracy Restoration Act and may register to vote in any such election.

(2) DATE OF NOTIFICATION-

(A) FELONY CONVICTION- In the case of such an individual who has been convicted of a felony, the notification required under paragraph (1) shall be given on the date on which the individual–

(i) is sentenced to serve only a term of probation; or

(ii) is released from the custody of that State (other than to the custody of another State or the Federal Government to serve a term of imprisonment for a felony conviction).

(B) MISDEMEANOR CONVICTION- In the case of such an individual who has been convicted of a misdemeanor, the notification required under paragraph (1) shall be given on the date on which such individual is sentenced by a State court.

(b) Federal Notification-

(1) NOTIFICATION- On the date determined under paragraph (2), the Director of the Bureau of Prisons shall notify in writing any individual who has been convicted of a criminal offense under Federal law that such individual has the right to vote in an election for Federal office pursuant to the Democracy Restoration Act and may register to vote in any such election.

(2) DATE OF NOTIFICATION-

(A) FELONY CONVICTION- In the case of such an individual who has been convicted of a felony, the notification required under paragraph (1) shall be given on the date on which the individual–

(i) is sentenced to serve only a term of probation by a court established by an Act of Congress; or

(ii) is released from the custody of the Bureau of Prisons (other than to the custody of a State to serve a term of imprisonment for a felony conviction).

(B) MISDEMEANOR CONVICTION- In the case of such an individual who has been convicted of a misdemeanor, the notification required under paragraph (1) shall be given on the date on which such individual is sentenced by a State court.

For more information on the Brennan Center’s research, click here.

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