Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—April 10, 2014. U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) has introduced a bill, S. 2235, the Democracy Restoration Act that would reduce recidivism rates by restoring voting rights to individuals after they have served their time and have been released from incarceration. Studies indicate that former prisoners who have voting rights restored are less likely to reoffend, and that disenfranchisement hinders their rehabilitation and reintegration into their community. Original cosponsors of S. 2235 include Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Companion legislation also was introduced today in the House of Representatives by Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee.
An estimated 5.85 million citizens of the United States – about 1 in 40 adults in the United States – currently cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction. Of the estimated 5.85 million citizens barred from voting, only 25% are in prison. By contrast, 75% of the disenfranchised reside in their communities while on probation or parole or after having completed their sentences. Approximately 2.6 million citizens who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised due to restrictive state laws.
“When prisoners are released, they are expected to obey the law, get a job, and pay taxes as they seek a fair shot at being rehabilitated and reintegrated into their community. Along with these responsibilities and obligations of citizenship should be the right to vote,” said Senator Ben Cardin. “The patchwork of state laws leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on where an individual lives, in addition to the racial disparities inherent in our judicial system. Congress has a responsibility to remedy these problems and enact a nationwide standard for restoration of voting rights.”
In 35 States, convicted individuals may not vote while they are on parole. In 11 States, a conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement. Several States require prisoners to seek discretionary pardons from Governors, or action by the parole or pardon board, in order to regain their right to vote. Several States deny the right to vote to individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors. States are slowly moving or repeal or loosen many of these barriers to voting for ex-prisoners.
“The right to vote is foundational to our democracy and to our values as a nation. Included in our basic democratic ideals is the notion that all citizens, including those who have served sentences and been released from prison, are afforded the opportunity to reintegrate into our communities. I am proud that my state of Vermont protects the rights of its citizens, and we as a nation should follow this example,” said Senator Leahy.
“The right to vote is one of the most important privileges and responsibilities we have as American citizens. We should focus our efforts on expanding participation in our democracy, and not disenfranchising those Americans who have already paid their debt to society and are on the road to rehabilitation,” Senator Durbin said.
“This is a civil rights issue, and fundamentally, about fairness, but not only that: Once offenders have paid their debt to society, it’s important to work quickly to reintegrate them into their communities to help prevent recidivism,” Senator Booker said. “Restoring one of our most sacred American rights is a critical first step.”
“Voting is the most fundamental right in our democracy, and the idea that people who have made past mistakes and paid the price for those mistakes should not be able to exercise that right is simply unacceptable. The Democracy Restoration Act would help correct this injustice and restore voting rights for millions of people,” said Senator Tom Harkin.
State disenfranchisement laws have a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Eight percent of the African-American population, or 2 million African-Americans, are disenfranchised, compared to less than 2 percent of non-African-Americans. Currently, 1 of every 13 African-Americans is rendered unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement– a rate four times greater than non-African Americans. In three states, more than one in five African Americans is unable to vote because of prior convictions (Florida-23 percent; Kentucky-22 percent; Virginia-20 percent). Latino citizens and Native Americans are also disproportionately disenfranchised based on their representation in the criminal justice system. In four states, Latinos were disenfranchised by a rate of more than 25 percent (California- 37 percent; New York-34 percent; Texas-30 percent; Arizona-27 percent).
The Democracy Restoration Act has been endorsed by a large coalition of public interest organizations, including: civil rights and reform organizations; religious and faith-based organizations; and law enforcement and criminal justice organizations. In particular, the Brennan Center for Justice, the ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, and Blacks in Law Enforcement of America have played a leadership role advancing this legislation. Most recently, in a February 2014 speech, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on elected officials to reexamine disenfranchisement statutes and enact reforms to restore voting rights.
S. 2235, the Democracy Restoration Act, follows the precedent of the Second Chance Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, as a measure to reduce recidivism rates, strengthen the quality of life in our communities and make them safer, and reduce the burden on taxpayers.