Voting Rights for Ex-Felons

A new report shows some 1.5 million convicted felons still denied one of democracy's fundamentals - the right to vote after completing their prison sentences.

In fact, 14 states don't automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served jail time, according to a study by the criminal justice advocacy group, The Sentencing Project.

The process to restore voting rights to felons, according to the report, is unnecessarily cumbersome - so much so, that many ex-cons don't even bother to try. (Thirty-five states and Washington, D.C., grant voting rights immediately to former felons.)

Southern states are especially at fault for having difficult registration procedures. Take Kentucky, where the governor now requires ex-felons to submit three character references along with an application. In Florida, most ex-felons are required to go through a hearing with the governor and his cabinet. In fact, out of 613,514 ex-felons in Florida (as of 2000), just 48,000 had their voting rights restored between 1998 and 2004. In Mississippi, only 107 ex-felons regained voting privileges out of 82,002 felons who had completed their sentences.

The laggard states' policies have been challenged by critics who see them as a form of racial politics. (One of six African-Americans in Florida can't vote because of a prior felony conviction.)

Elections should be open to all of the country's citizens eligible to vote - a right that reflects a society's willingness to recognize full citizenship for those who have paid their legal debt to society.

Participating in elections can help give ex-felons a sense of being connected as public stakeholders in a broader community. Civil rights advocate Jazz Hayden once said, "In prison you lose your liberty, not your citizenship." He's right.

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