Jennifer Ruben writing in the Washington Post:
It is sometimes difficult to tell whether democracy defenders are holding the line against authoritarian forces. But this past week, we saw evidence of real progress in expanding suffrage, a key aspect of democracy. Specifically at issue: restoring voting rights to former felons.
Democracy Docket, the progressive outlet in favor of voting rights, reports, “On Tuesday, the Minnesota state Senate sent a bill to the governor that would restore voting rights to individuals with past felony convictions immediately upon release from incarceration.”
And it’s not just Minnesota. “As of Monday, Feb. 20,” Democracy Docket explains, “at least 73 bills related to felony disenfranchisement have been introduced in over 20 states. Of these 73 bills, 68 of them ease existing felony disenfranchisement laws to differing extents. This means that 93% of bills related to voting rights in the criminal legal system move in the pro-voting direction, a stark comparison to other policies governing voting access.”
It’s no mystery how these laws got on the books. No sooner had Black people received the right to vote after the Civil War did states began enacting felony disenfranchisement. And with the movement toward mass incarceration, which fell disproportionately on Black Americans (including for nonviolent drug crimes), the population of permanently disenfranchised minority Americans ballooned.
The Sentencing Project, which advocated for voting and criminal justice reform last year, reported ahead of the midterms: “Laws in 48 states ban people with felony convictions from voting. In 2022, an estimated 4.6 million Americans, representing 2 percent of the voting-age population, will be ineligible to vote due to these laws or policies, many of which date back to the post-Reconstruction era.”
Reconsideration of this assault on democracy is overdue. Re-enfranchising millions of Americans who have paid their debts to society would be a powerful step in the direction of universal voting, a core principle of democracy.
And expanding voting is popular: A 2022 poll conducted by Lake Research Partners on behalf of State Innovation Exchange, Stand Up America, the Sentencing Project and Common Cause found that 56 percent of voters favor allowing all eligible voters “including citizens completing their sentence, both inside and outside of prison,” to vote. Just 35 percent oppose the idea.
To be certain, there have been high-profile losses on this front, as well. Republicans effectively overturned the will of Florida voters, 65 percent of whom voted in 2018 to allow felons who had served their sentences to regain voting rights. It did not take long for Florida’s Republican lawmakers and governor to “severely” roll back that effort, the New York Times reported. By requiring those who leave prison to repay court fines and fees, the state effectively re-barred these people from voting. Consider it a 21st-century version of a poll tax.
It was telling that five of the six federal judges who voted to strip away voting rights were appointed by President Donald Trump. Making matters worse, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) unleashed a squad of election police to arrest voters, most of whom were Black, who tried to cast votes thinking they had regained their rights. Those cases soon collapsed.
Fortunately, Florida seems to be swimming against the tide, even among red states. States moving toward liberalizing voting for former felons include Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Nebraska. Perhaps Florida’s Republicans can be shamed into rethinking their war on enfranchisement.
The battle to preserve democracy won’t succeed in a week or a month or a year. But progress is still being made that can restore rights to millions of potential voters. There is reason for hope.
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