Cross-posted to Project Vote’s Voting Matters Blog

Last month, we reported that citizens are becoming more sympathetic to voting rights restoration as they realize disenfranchisement of released felons does not just unnecessarily punish the ex-offender, but also the voice of their communities. This news resonated recently in the states of Wisconsin and Virginia – one of which has hopes of restoring the rights of some 40,000 ex-offenders while the other is criticized for “lagging” in restoration of civil rights.
“Ex-offenders are expected to re-integrate, pay taxes and become law-abiding citizens, but are prevented from helping to create the laws they must obey,” said Paige Hodges, a grant writer for Total Action Against Poverty in Virginia’s Roanoke Times Tuesday. “The most fundamental expression of democracy — the right to vote — is marred in our state’s constitution by legalized, permanent disenfranchisement.”

Virginia is one of only two states that permanently bar felons from voting, resulting in the disenfranchisement of 300,000 citizens that have completed their sentences. “Convicted felons in Virginia who want their rights back must petition the governor in what can be a lengthy process,” according to Roanoke Times reporter, Lawrence Hammack. “Once they are out of prison and off probation, there’s a waiting period of three years for nonviolent offenders and five years for violent offenders and drug dealers.”

Although advocates commend Governor Tim Kaine for restoring the rights of more ex-offenders than any governor since 1938, they say that “the system remains too cumbersome” with only 3,958 felons that have regained their civil rights, not to mention a racial disparity in the voters the disenfranchisement law affects.

“It takes at least six months to conduct criminal background checks and complete the paperwork for each case,” Hammack wrote. “That means if everyone who is eligible were to apply, it would take more than 200 years to process all the applications, according to a study by the Advancement Project, a policy and legal action group committed to racial justice.”

“It’s a Jim Crow-era law that has no business being in our constitution,” said Hodges, who is working with other communities groups to organize an event this week to help “spread the word to convicted felons who may be eligible to have their rights restored.”

Illustrating the disenfranchisement laws that blatantly targeted African Americans in the development of the state constitution in 1902, Hammock included a disturbing quote from then Delegate Carter Glass: “This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years, so that in no single county … will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”

As in many states with strict disenfranchisement laws, the African American population is most impacted. According to the Advancement Project report, “about half of the convicted felons barred from voting in Virginia are black…even though blacks constitute less than 20 percent of the state’s voting-age population,” Hammock wrote.

This very issue was recently discussed in Wisconsin where African Americans make up a majority of its 40,000 disenfranchised parolees that would potentially regain their voting rights if Assembly Bill 353 gains traction, according to a Wisconsin Public Radio report (a written summary can be found at Fox 21 KQDS).

This year brings higher hopes for passing a bill to extend voting rights to parolees, according to WPR, as it not only expands the electorate to include more citizens, but also saves the state money. According to state elections board director Kevin Kennedy, the bill would actually save the state $13,000 by eliminating the need to generate lists of ex-offenders for poll workers to review. Assembly member and bill sponsor, Tamara D. Grigsby (D-18) said the “simple act of voting makes ex-offenders feel more connected to their communities and is an important step to rehabilitation,” KQDS reported.

Monitor Wisconsin Assembly Bill 353 at Project Vote’s election bill tracking Web site, www.ElectionLegislation.org.

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