New Suffragists Fight to Gain Ballot for Incarcerated People

By Candice Bernd, Truthout

Republicans in the largest swing state have already begun chipping away at civil rights activists’ biggest victory in the movement to restore voting rights to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions.

After Florida voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure reversing the state’s lifetime voting ban for most people convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences, the GOP-controlled state Senate voted for a bill that would drastically limit the number of people who will be allowed to cast ballots in next year’s presidential election.

 
Suffrage activist Desmond Meade is hugged by a friend inside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office after registering to vote. People with felony convictions regained their voting rights in Florida on January 8, 2019.    PHELAN M. EBENHACK FOR THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

Suffrage activist Desmond Meade is hugged by a friend inside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office after registering to vote. People with felony convictions regained their voting rights in Florida on January 8, 2019.

PHELAN M. EBENHACK FOR THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

 

Senate Republicans voted along party lines last week to pass a bill implementing the constitutional amendment approved by voters with a major caveat: The bill would require all financial obligations ordered by a judge be paid before people can vote. Civil rights activists have decried the change as a new poll tax that could keep tens of thousands from the ballot box.

The move comes as the debate over allowing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to vote continues to divide the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders boldly called for restoring voting rights to all people with felony convictions, including those behind bars, at a presidential town hall last month, a position that is not shared by any other major candidate.

Sen. Cory Booker has become the most recent candidate to take a swipe at Sanders over the proposal. Senator Booker’s criminal legal reform bill, The Next Step Act, was introduced in March and would allow people with felony convictions to vote in federal elections. However, Booker called Sanders’s stance in favor of voting rights for all currently incarcerated people “frustrating.”

Only two states currently allow people who are incarcerated to vote: Maine and Sanders’s home state of Vermont. In 22 other states, people are disenfranchised during incarceration and parole and/or probation. In these states, people with felony convictions may also have to pay any outstanding restitution before their voting rights are restored, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

About 6.1 million citizens are currently denied the right to vote due to a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project; that’s 1 in 13 Black adults compared to 1 in every 56 non-Black adults.

Debate over the issue has been slowly gaining traction in several states, including conservative states, such as Kentucky and Alabama, as criminal legal reform advocates steadily push back against voting restrictions in state legislatures. Such suffrage activists are emphasizing the long-term civil constraints placed on disenfranchised communities of color in their states, and stressing that stripping incarcerated citizens of their right to vote has no benefit for public safety.

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