Even after felons pay their dues to society and leave prison, America sidelines them from the public square. Parolees and probationers are often perceived as undeserving of citizen benefits, and they have little power to assert their rights. Not only do governments often deny felons public resources such as Food Stamps, subsidized college loans, public housing and professional opportunities like licenses and contracts, it is also common for U.S. states to deny former prisoners the right to vote and otherwise exercise full and free citizenship. Felon disenfranchisement is the rule rather than the exception. Some 35 U.S. states deny voting rights when felons leave prison, restoring the right to vote only after the completion of terms of parole and probation. Effective lifetime disqualification prevails in a few states like Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — where the right to vote can be restored for felons only on a case-by-case basis involving individual appeals leading to gubernatorial pardons. But felon disenfranchisement is not going unchallenged. Reform pushes are widespread — and a 2006 victory in Rhode Island offers room for optimism that full citizenship rights may, over time, be restored to former prisoners.
The Voting News
One of the most pernicious outcomes of the intense political struggle between Democrats and Republicans is the parties’ breathtaking capacity to game our voting rules. Nothing makes voters more cynical than seeing political leaders seemingly supporting or opposing election laws based solely on their partisan impact — from redistricting reform to fights over whether to allow early voting. But a reform win in New York could foreshadow a cease-fire in the voting wars. On April 15, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation making New York the 10th state to pass the National Popular Vote (NPV) interstate compact for president. Overwhelming majorities of both Republicans and Democrats approved the bill, which seeks to guarantee election of the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We don’t need a constitutional amendment to achieve this goal. The Constitution gives each state power over how to allocate its electoral votes and the ability to enter into binding interstate compacts. The Founding Fathers gave states freedom to structure how to select the president — and national popular vote embodies that tradition.
Most Alabama voters won’t see anything other than Republicans and Democrats on their ballots in the November general election. That’s because it’s hard — unjustly hard — for anyone else to get on the ballot in our state, thanks to the restrictive ballot access law the Legislature has refused to change. Lawmakers have had many opportunities to amend the law to something more reasonable that still protects the integrity of the ballot, but a bill to do that failed in this year’s session, just as similar measures have languished in past sessions. Independent candidates face serious barriers to the ballot here. Under current law, an independent candidate trying to run for a statewide office must collect signatures of registered voters — lots of them. The candidate must present to the secretary of state petitions bearing such signatures totaling at least 3 percent of the number of votes cast for governor in the previous general election.
The District’s Republican Party says it will sue any sitting Democrat on the D.C. Council who opts to run as an independent for one of two at-large seats reserved for minority political parties, promising the latest spirited defense of the set-aside positions that have long been a source of discord among city politicians. “The law was set up for third-party candidates, for nonmajority candidates. It wasn’t set up so Democrats could play games with their identification,” said D.C. GOP Chairman Ron Phillips, pointing to the Republican and Statehood Party candidates who have held the seats in the past. The threat was made after two Democrats — council members Tommy Wells and Yvette M. Alexander — last week openly discussed switching to independent status to pursue the at-large seat being vacated by Republican turned independent David A. Catania in his bid for mayor. Another five independent candidates, all of whom were previously registered as Democrats, also have expressed interest in the seat.
Iowa felons will continue to be disqualified from voting, even after a court ruling this week indicated that some felonies may not rise to a level that should bar those convicted from voting or holding office. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a second operating-while-intoxicated conviction, an aggravated misdemeanor, did not bar former state Sen. Tony Bisignano from running for state Senate again. Rival Democrat Ned Chiodo challenged Bisignano’s candidacy in the south-side Des Moines district, arguing that second-offense OWI was an “infamous crime” that would strip Bisignano of his voting and office-holding rights. In the ruling, Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote that Bisignano’s aggravated misdemeanor was not an “infamous crime.” Cady also wrote that the court should review in a future case whether some of Iowa’s 777 felony charges also might not rise to a level that would require stripping a person of voting rights.
Missouri Republicans are working to ensure that if the state adopts early voting, it’s as limited—and inconvenient—as possible. On Wednesday, the state’s GOP-controlled House approved a measure that would ask voters to consider amending the state’s constitution to establish early voting. But under the amendment, the early voting period would last just nine days, ending a full week before Election Day, and would not include Sunday voting. In other states, Sunday voting is especially popular with African-American voters who often vote en masse after church. … But some Democrats say it’s designed to head off a Democratic-backed campaign that would put a different constitutional amendment on the ballot, allowing for six weeks of early voting, including three Saturdays and three Sundays. As such, they say, it aims to do almost as little as possible to make voting easier for working Missourians.
If the cuts to early voting in North Carolina’s restrictive voting law had been in effect in 2012, Election Day wait times would have risen dramatically, a significant number of would-be voters would have given up in frustration—and African-American voters would have been hit hardest. That’s according to two top voting scholars, whose testimony in the lawsuit seeking to overturn the measure was released Thursday by the ACLU, one of the groups leading the effort. The law’s challengers, including the U.S. Justice Department, allege that it violates the Voting Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination in voting. The expert testimony of Ted Allen of Ohio State and Paul Gronke of Reed College is a key part of establishing both that the measure would make it harder to vote and that its impact would be felt disproportionately by non-whites. Among other provisions, North Carolina’s law, passed last year by Republicans, cut seven days from the state’s early voting period. In 2012, 900,000 North Carolinians used those days to vote.
The U.S. Department of Justice and Texas have locked horns over discovery in a prominent voting rights challenge. Lawyers from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division asked a panel of judges Wednesday to compel Texas to turn over legislative documents that “may shed light on the Texas Legislature’s motivation” for enacting the 2011 congressional redistricting plans. Specifically, the department’s lawyer say they’ve asked Texas to supplement its responses to similar document requests in other litigation in the state over alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This time, Texas said no, according to the Justice Department.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe plans to announce today that he will shrink the time violent felons must wait to seek reinstatement of their voting rights and will remove some offenses from that list. The policy slated to take effect April 21 comes on top of years of work to streamline the process, and aims to make the system easier to understand and to allow more felons to petition the state more quickly. In a series of changes to the state’s restoration of rights process, McAuliffe plans to collapse the application waiting period from five to three years for people convicted of violent felonies and others that require a waiting period, and to remove drug offenses from that list. In Virginia, only the governor can restore civil rights to felons, and attempts over the years to change the Virginia Constitution to allow for automatic restoration have failed.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looked set to win a fourth term with allies claiming victory in an election on Thursday, despite questions over his health and his rare appearances since suffering a stroke in 2013. Official results were due on Friday, but Bouteflika’s camp claimed the independence veteran backed by the dominant National Liberation Front (FLN) party had succeeded in securing five more years at the helm of the North African OPEC state. The 77-year-old Bouteflika, who has appeared in public only a few times since his stroke, earlier voted in Algiers while sitting in a wheelchair. He gave no statement and only briefly shook hands with supporters before leaving.