Legislatures in 16 states have loosened voting restrictions on felons over the last decade . . . . Iowa, Nebraska and New Mexico have repealed their lifetime bans on voting by people who have been convicted of felonies, and several other states made it easier for freed prisoners or those on probation to vote. . . . The recent changes have restored voting rights to more than 600,000 individuals, the report said. But because the country’s prison population has continued to rise, a record number of Americans, 5.3 million, are still denied the vote because of criminal records[.] . . .
Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no restrictions, even permitting inmates to vote. At the other extreme, three states, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, still have lifetime bans on voting by felons. Nine others bar selected groups of offenders for life.
New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, like most states, do not allow current inmates or parolees to vote.
In a ballot initiative in Rhode Island this November, voters will decide whether to restore voting rights to prisoners on parole or probation, who far outnumber inmates. Early polls show public support for the measure. . . .
In 2004, one in eight black men were unable to vote because of a felony conviction . . . . Felony convictions have left one in four black men barred from voting in five states: Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Virginia and Wyoming . . . .
In Texas in 1997, Gov. George W. Bush signed a law eliminating a two-year wait before prisoners ending their parole could vote.
From the New York Times.
Colorado's Bad Policy
I favor allowing people who are on parole to vote.
Felons in prison and on parole are the only U.S. citizens, eighteen years of age or older, who are residents of the jurisdiction where they are registered, who are not allowed to vote. Moreover, once someone becomes a U.S. citizen eighteen years of age or older, the never cease to have that status (for all practical purposes) until their death. In contrast, for example, mentally ill people who are confined in an asylum have hte right to vote.
Excluding people who are actually incarcerated from voting reduces administrative compliance burdens on election officials (who would otherwise have to send absentee ballots to, or set up polling locations in state prisons), and deprives only people who aren't materially impacted by the affairs of their community, during periods when the main focus of their existence is being punished, from voting.
Allowing parolees to vote, in contrast, helps to reintegrate them into the community, which is the purpose of parole, and it is less administratively burdensome than excluding them. It requires an effort on the part of a voting administrative official to learn the parole status of every voter, every time that vote wants to vote. We shouldn't devote scarce resources in the electoral system to preventing people from voting.
By The Numbers
As of September of 2006, there were 5,801 people living in Colorado who were on parole. The percentage of inmates in Colorado prisons who are foreign born is 6.6%, and a signficant portion of them are either naturalized U.S. citizens, or are deported upon completion of their term of incarceration, so a smaller percentage of non-citizens would be expected amongst parolees. In other words, the vast majority of parolees are eligible to vote, but for their parole status.
In that same month there were 2,373,874 active voter registration in the state, and another 560,876 inactive voter registrations. In 2004, there were about 3,422,000 people of voting age in Colorado, about 433,000 of whom were foreign born. About 130,000 of the foreign born persons were U.S. citizens, and about something on the order of 10-20% of foreign person non-citizens are under age 18. Thus, about 75% of eligible voters in Colorado have active voter registrations.
Thus, even if every parolee registered to vote, the impact would be only about 0.2% of the total number of registered voters. In practice, parolees would probably registered to vote less frequently than members of the general population, so the impact would likely be closer to 0.1% of the pool of registered voters.
Considerable attention to this issue has focused on the impact these laws have on African-American men who are not currently incarcerated and would otherwise be eligible to vote. Assuming that the demographics of the parole population are the same as the demographics of the prison population, there were 516 African-American men on parole in September of 2006 in Colorado. Based on the census data in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, there were roughly 69,000 African-American men otherwise eligible to vote, who were not incarcerated in Colorado. Thus, about 0.7% of non-incarcerated African-American men are disenfranchised by Colorado's parole law. About 3.5% of all African-American men in Colorado, including those incarcerated, are disenfranchised by Colorado law. In neighboring Wyoming, the figure is 25%.
The change would be easy to bring about. It would require changing only one word in the phrase "or while serving a sentence of parole" to "except while serving a sentence of parole" in Section 1-2-103(4), Colorado Revised Statutes.
It would also be truer to the spirit of Colorado Constitution Article VII, Section 10 (adopted in 1876) which provides that:
No person while confined in any public prison shall be entitled to vote; but every such person who was a qualified elector prior to such imprisonment, and who is released therefrom by virtue of a pardon, or by virtue of having served out his full term of imprisonment, shall without further action, be invested with all the rights of ctizenship, except as othrwise provided in this constitution.
Current law recently survived a court challenge premised on this provision of the Colorado Constitution, but that doesn't make the existing law a good idea.