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I n Florida, where about 600,000 ex-felons are disenfranchised (one-third of all disenfranchised ex-felons in the country), newspaper editorials calling for reform have been appearing regularly in the past year in such mainstream outlets as the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald . There has been so much public pressure in Florida that even Republican legislators are calling on the governor to restore voting rights to ex-felons.
Voting rights have been won in recent years in Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland through legal, legislative, and community initiatives. In Connecticut, a broad coalition of groups came together to support a bill restoring voting rights to felons on probation, which was finally passed after a large- scale public education effort. The details of activists’ organizing strategies in these states are on the Sentencing Project’s website.
The American Correctional Association has also added their voice of support, calling for states to end their practice of disfranchising parolees and people who have completed their prison terms.
According to the results of a 2002 poll, the public appears to be in agreement with these efforts, as 80 percent of respondents supported the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons who have completed their sentences. The number went down, however, when respondents were asked about certain categories of ex-felons (such as those convicted of murder or a sex crime). Sixty-four percent and 62 percent respectively support the right of probationers and parolees to vote. For currently incarcerated felons, however, support dim- inishes to 33 percent.
While all states except Maine and Vermont disfranchise currently incarcerated felons, state disenfranchisement laws vary widely for ex-felons and those on probation or parole. Florida is one of six states with the harshest variation, often referred to as “permanent disenfranchisement.” This means that all those convicted of a felony who have completed their sentences are denied the right to vote for the rest of their lives, unless they apply successfully for a restoration of rights. This is a lengthy and difficult process, which many offenders don’t even know about (as they often don’t realize they have lost the right to vote in the first place).
Another eight states disfranchise a portion of their ex-felon populations for certain categories of offenses or for a limited time. Even then, ex-felons must still apply for restoration of their rights. The Sentencing Project just came out with a report (“Barred for Life”) surveying the restoration processes of all 14 of these states.
The rest of the country either automatically restores voting rights upon prison release, after the completion of parole, or after the completion of both parole and probation. Only one-quarter of the disenfranchised are currently incarcerated. All the rest are either under some sort of community supervision (parole or probation) or are ex-felons.
is interesting to note that while non-incarcerated felons have been
gaining back the right to vote in many states since the 1960s, the
percentage of disenfranchised felons who are currently in prison
has continually increased to nearly 100 percent. While there is
little public support for extending the franchise to this sector
of felons in the United States, 18 countries in Europe have done
Nationally about 4.7 million people with a felony conviction are disenfranchised, or 2.3 percent of the voting-age population. In Florida, the percentage rises to 7 percent (the highest percentage of any state). That such large numbers are affected is mainly due to the country’s high incarceration rate, the highest known in the world.
The U.S. high incarceration rate has mainly been a consequence of the way the “war on drugs” was waged in the 1980s and 1990s. Judicial discretion was narrowed through such means as federal and state sentencing “guidelines” (really sets of rules judges must follow), less use of parole, and harsh mandatory minimum sentences. More people going to prison for longer periods of time was the result.
It was the “war on crime” that laid the groundwork for this latest variation of the “war on drugs,” which, according to Katherine Beckett in her book Making Crime Pay , first came on the national stage in the 1920s when it was used as an attack against immigrants and political dissent. Crime re-emerged as a major issue in national politics in the 1964 presidential campaign. Republican candidate Barry Goldwater used the “law and order” rhetoric of southern governors and law enforcement officials who were attempting to discredit the civil rights movement (calling civil rights protesters “thugs” and “lawbreakers”), in order to attack Johnson’s Great Society programs and the idea of criminal rehabilitation.
The public was swayed by the massive media onslaught that endlessly repeated politicians’ claims, and as a result crime control expenditure ballooned from $4.6 billion in 1965 to $100 billion by 1993. While crime rates were fluctuating between 1972 and 1996, the incarceration rate quadrupled. Minorities have been particularly affected. Blacks are now over one-half of all prison inmates, up from one-third twenty years ago.
Felony disenfranchisement laws were used by southern states as a means of disfranchising blacks after the Civil War. Mississippi didn’t even include those convicted of murder or rape in their list of crimes invoking disenfranchisement, because they weren’t believed to be “black” crimes, while Alabama included non-felonies such as vagrancy (crimes the state said involved “moral turpitude,” which were believed to be “black” crimes) until the Supreme Court overturned their criminal disenfranchisement provisions in 1985.
Currently, about one in seven black men are disenfranchised in the country. In Florida, that proportion is nearly one in three.
In an article examining the impact of felon disenfranchisement on blacks, researchers Uggen, Manza, and Behrens note, “The role of race in driving the adoption or extension of disfranchising measures aimed at felons or former felons fits, therefore, into a much larger historical pattern: white political elites employing racial stereotypes and fears of crime to eliminate core citizenship rights of large numbers of African Americans.”
Supporters of felon disenfranchisement have often conjured up the idea of “the purity of the ballot box” in defense of keeping felons out of it (not an unfamiliar argument in our history of voting rights struggles). Others, including courts, have stated that felon disenfranchisement is not punishment but a legitimate voting qualification, like age or residency.
Those who have feared electoral defilement describe a “criminal voting block” that would possibly vote against the criminal justice system and more election crimes as past criminals are more likely to commit them. But, as one law review article noted, these two arguments are contrary to our “democratic commitment to majority rule” and our commitment to “innocent until proven guilty.”
In their report, “Losing the Vote,” the Sentencing Project reminds readers of the severity of the primary punishment for prisoners, the loss of liberty. Any further restrictions on prisoners’ rights can only be justified as being necessary for the safe and orderly operation of the prison, but such reasoning does not hold for barring the right to vote.
Viewed as additional punishment, it is still problematic given the “lack of proportionality and absence of participation by a judge.” The report goes on to say: “Given that incarcerated offenders are suffering all the losses and hardships that necessarily attend life behind bars, a state’s interest in inflicting even more punishment can scarcely be weighty enough to justify deprivation of another fundamental right.”
Beyond the impact on the individual person with a felony conviction, felon disenfranchisement laws may influence elections. A study from 2002 published in the American Sociological Review found that re-enfranchising Florida’s ex-felons in time for the 2000 election would have swung the state’s (and thus the country’s) vote to Gore.
The authors also found that 7 senatorial elections would have been overturned in favor of the Democrats if felons and ex-felons had had the franchise, out of some 400 Senatorial elections from 1978 to 2000. This could have had an impact on the partisan balance in the Senate because of the advantage of incumbency, which these seven Democrats would have had. At the local level, these kinds of effects would be presumably even more dramatic, particularly in areas with high concentrations of disenfranchised felons.
The difficulty in finding a justification for felon disenfranchisement laws led Alexander Keyssar to conclude in his book The Right to Vote that there has been a generally held belief, though usually unstated, that voters should be moral persons. He adds: “Coexisting uneasily with the broad claim that the franchise was a right was the resurgent notion that the state could draw a line between the worthy and the unworthy, that it could determine who was fit to possess the right of citizenship.”
For those working towards a rehabilitative criminal justice system, which helps those released from prison to re-join the community, and those still in prison to prepare to do so, at the moment disenfranchisement laws remain an obstacle. But activists are fighting impressively and will hopefully inspire others to broaden and deepen the struggle for democracy in our country.
Eva Kuras is a writer and member of the Orlando Greens.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
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ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
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MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.