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Advancement Project: Advancing Voting Rights Restoration for 6 Million Americans

September 16, 2020

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Many of us may not realize this staggering fact: There are more than 6 million Americans banned from the polls due to felony disenfranchisement — the loss of voting rights due to the conviction of a criminal offense.

“It’s important for us to remember that there is a whole group of American citizens who can’t participate in our democracy,” said Judith Browne Dianis, civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Advancement Project, which supports movements toward a just democracy.

To get a better understanding of how this issue affects our democracy, I recently spoke to Dianis about the voting barriers faced by Americans with felony convictions. Here’s what she told me:

Why does felony disenfranchisement exist?

Dianis: States have enacted a range of laws that take away the right to vote for people with felony convictions. Most of the laws were put in place right after Reconstruction. Especially in the South, there was an attempt to take away the political power of Black people who were both newly freed and being elected to office. These factors threatened the ruling ideology of white supremacy so states started to pass laws to criminalize very minor offenses and take away Black peoples’ right to vote as a result.

Later, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and overcriminalization of Black folks, in particular, meant felony disenfranchisement laws had a disproportionate impact on African American communities.

States still vary in their approaches to rights restoration. In Maine and Vermont, people with felony convictions have never lost their right to vote. Iowa just struck down a law that placed a lifetime ban on voting rights for citizens with felony convictions. Some states do not let people who are on probation or parole vote, some states don’t let people who are currently in prison vote.

Why is voting right restoration for those with felony convictions crucial to our democracy? 

Dianis: Even if you have a felony conviction, you have people who are still making laws that impact you, and you should have a say in that. No one should lose their right to vote because of a felony conviction.

Also, it’s important to note that felony disenfranchisement doesn’t just disempower individuals. Stripping people of their right to vote can blunt the political power of entire communities. We did a study and found that, in some cases, whole neighborhoods lost political power because so many people in that neighborhood have felony convictions. This means whole communities can not elect school board members, the sheriff, or the district attorney of their own choosing.

Tell me about the work the Advancement Project is doing.

Dianis: This fall, we’re bringing together people from various states who are working on voting rights issues because there is a lot to be learned from each other. We’re going to talk about the strategies that people are using to advance rights restoration, especially how people are lifting up the issue in an election cycle.

We were one of the founding members of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a grassroots membership organization, run by returning citizens. It was founded by Desmond Meade, a formerly homeless returning citizen who overcame many obstacles to eventually become the president of the FRRC.

We provided legal counsel to and worked with FRRC on a ballot initiative (Amendment 4) to eliminate this barrier to full participation in our society. In 2018, Amendment 4 was passed by 65 percent of Floridians and restored the right to vote to 1.4 million Floridians with past felony convictions.

What we’ve learned in Florida is that you can win, but you still have to implement. Before you can vote in Florida, you have to pay your fines and fees and that can be very complicated. For example, if you have a felony conviction in Broward County and Miami Dade County, there is no one place that you can go to find out how much you owe. People have to track down how much they owe because the criminal justice and the election systems don’t talk to each other. Also, many returning citizens owe a lot of money. You may owe restitution to a victim, fines and fees, and court costs. In every state, there is this logistical nightmare around implementation.

We’ve been talking to local election officials and clerks of courts to figure out administrative ways to make it easier for people.

We also need to do a lot of education to ensure that folks know their rights. In Virginia, we did sessions with formerly incarcerated people to walk them through how to get their rights restored.

Is there anything else you want to share?

Dianis: Right now, we have a patchwork of state laws that inform our right to vote. For years, the Advancement Project has been a supporter of a right-to-vote constitutional amendment.

Some groups think there is already a right to vote that is implicit in the Constitution. But, if there were, the courts would treat the right to vote very differently when they review voter suppression laws. Also, we believe that if the right to vote was enshrined in the Constitution, we would have national standards around voting.

In light of the recent protests against our criminal justice system and the demand to end mass incarceration, we see an opening to change the narrative around who is part of that system. Why should we rip away the one indicator of citizenship because you got caught in a system that is now being exposed as unfair?

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