12 October 2006

Voting Restrictions For Felons

Colorado law allows felons to vote after they have completed their sentences, including parole. It also allows even people who are incarcerated or on parole for misdemeanors to vote.

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 Iowa, Nebraska and New Mexico have repealed their lifetime bans on voting by people who have been convicted of felonies, and several other states made it easier for freed prisoners or those on probation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 Law

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.


Sotosoroto said...

Do you really want convicted lawbreakers to the have the ability to affect (however slightly) and change the law?

Oh, let's reduce the size of the police force, too. What am I saying, let's get rid of the police all together!

Any politician who maybe will vote to ease criminality or punishments will just soak up all the criminal vote. I'm not saying that all felons, after their years in prison, will go back to a life of crime, but you gotta admit that a lot of them do.

tovah said...

What about those who actually learned from their mistakes? I have a neighbor who was on parole for years and just got off 2 months ago. He's only had 3 jobs in the 5 years he's been out of jail (a big accomplishment) and just passed his driver's test last week. He is completely self sufficient and drug free (he was a dealer and an addict). Why should he have not been allowed to vote last year but can this year? And in Florida, he'd never be able to vote again.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Lots of criminals do go back to a life of crime. One important reason for this is that they lose their sense of connection to law abiding people. Voting is a symbolic connection to living the straight and narrow life. I'd be willing to bet that parolees who vote, in states where this is permitted, are significantly less likely to reoffend than those who do.

Also why spend money checking voter roles against parolee databases when you could instead spend it on, for example, improving databases that inform Homeland Security about deportable felons (only about one in ten are picked up now and bad communication is part of the problem).

Anonymous said...

and lots of them don't go back to a life of crime. they lose this connection because they are cut off from this. i feel that everyone has a right to do anything and if they mess that up it is the governments option to give them a second chance.
when these men and women do get a second chance if you can call it that they are cut off they are limited to the jobs they can have if they can find a job that will take them and finding housing is a hole nother story sometimes they can't even find a place to live our community is what makes these people the way they are.

Anonymous said...

Justice is the name we give to the system. It should be that, but it is not. i agree that providing inroads to reintegration would be a symbolic bridge to help welcome reformed criminals back into the wider community of citizenry. It is shameful that sotosoroto is so myopic and self-righteous. There are many different types of felonies and many types of people who are convicted of them. We should remember that the reality of the Criminal Justice System is far more complex than shows like "Oz" portray it to be. Let's not stereotype all felons as dangerous, blood thirsty sociopaths, and remember that the United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration in the industrial world. Perhaps this is because we collectively let our imaginations run away with us, and allow our irrational fears to get the better of us.

Anonymous said...

Sotosoroto.... You are very close-minded on this issue. Felonies are being handed out at an alarming rate to people you would never see differently if you didn't know. Having a felony doesn't mean you are a hardcore criminal that is out to destroy the system. Simply giving someone one of your prescription pills can be considered a felony. It isn't fair to say that a poor decision in life should ban you for life from your constitutional rights. I would think its fair to say that at least 90% of the people in the US have done something in their life (like those good old college days) classified by the government as a felony, most just don't get caught and convicted.

Anonymous said...

im a felon,and the road to get back into society is tough,i was a drug addict for 17 years,ive been clean now for 6 years.we all make mistakes in our lives,some of us dont get caught,a crime is a crime.we would be alot better off if there were not so many restrictions on us,just think some have no family,and cant assoiciate with old friends,and then they cant find a job or housing.no wonder we have so many people returning into the system.wake up people and see whats happening,if you kick a person for so long he wont be able to get up,there are good in people that are coming out of prison,and we should be able to vote, i pay taxes.give people a chance!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I am a felon. 10 years ago I accepted a plea bargain on a felony menacing charge that happened as part of a suicide attempt caused by depression and an accidental overdose of prescription medication. I attempted to end my life with a firearm once the paramedics arrived, and others were put at risk.

I served a short sentence on work release. Absolutely no information was given to me on rights or legal requirements on release - I had to find out for myself. I have always voted. it is more than a privilege, it is a duty.

I had never been in any trouble before my conviction, was active in community events, and even taught firearms safety to friends and family. I had no difficulty after either, other than a speeding ticket or two. I have had 2 jobs in the last 18 years - meeting my professional obligations has never been an issue.

There is no such thing as "paying your debt to society" Once you are labeled felon, you are stuck with it forever. Even those who accept responsibility and make the best of things are stigmatized by the label.

It's true that there are habitual criminals that require the intervention and supervision provided by law enforcement. It is equally true that there are many convicts that have paid for their mistakes many times over, and continue to pay by not having access to the same level of opportunity others enjoy. You may also be surprised to know that many of these people are far less tolerant of the habitual offender than the common citizen.

Part of the difficulty the accused face is that the system of law we use supports charging with the highest penalty crime available to the prosecutor and additionally often relies on the ignorance of the accused and lack of experience or resources in securing adequate counsel.

The courts are not concerned with Justice or the character of the accused, only with correct application of law.

There is no distinction between those who go looking for trouble, and those who have it knock down their door.

With the current trend of passing mutually exclusive laws, it may someday be impossible to avoid becoming a criminal. The part of the debate that always astonishes me is that while a conviction may be a bar to Voting in some states, there seems to be no restriction on Running as a candidate. You would be surprised at how many of our lawmakers nationally have been convicted of crimes.

Finally, being a convict means you have made a mistake - it does not mean you have somehow become less of an american, less of a person. It does NOT make you love your country any less, nor make you any less interested in securing the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for your self and yours. The future of the country is something everyone should be concerned with.