Monday, September 15, 2008

Ex-Felons and The Right to Vote (part 2)

As I noted back in June, some states (such as Florida) are rolling back their punitive restrictions on former felons and the right to vote. This Times article explores that and its potential impact on the '08 presidential race.

Felony disenfranchisement — often a holdover from exclusionary Jim Crow-era laws like poll taxes and ballot box literacy tests — affects about 5.3 million former and current felons in the United States, according to voting rights groups. But voter registration and advocacy groups say that recent overhauls of these Reconstruction-era laws have loosened enough in some states to make it worth the time to lobby statehouses for more liberal voting restoration processes, and to try to track down former felons in indigent neighborhoods.

“You’re talking about incredible numbers of people out there who now may have had their right to vote restored and don’t even know it,” said Reggie Mitchell, a former voter-registration worker for People for the American Way. In Florida, “we’re talking tens of thousands of people,” he said. “And in the 2000 election, in the state of Florida, 300 people made the difference.”

To no one's surprise, neither presidential candidate seems to be seeking their votes.

Two other groups, the Sentencing Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, said they had given briefings to officials for Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign about how to register former felons. But the Obama campaign has been reluctant to acknowledge any concerted effort.

None of the felony voter registration organizations contacted for this article could recall hearing from Senator John McCain’s campaign. And a campaign spokesman said there had been no effort to reach out to former prisoners specifically.

Last month, Obama campaign workers took down a sign at their headquarters in Pottstown, Pa., that said “Felons can vote,” because it might have sent the wrong message.

“The fear is that it might cost them more votes to be portrayed as the candidate of the felons than it could gain them,” said Anthony C. Thompson, a New York University law professor and Obama campaign adviser. “This is a mistaken belief, in my view, when there are tens of millions of citizens with criminal records.”

Granted, being dubbed the "candidate of criminals" would be a non-starter. But it really is ironic, in this day and age of targeted, voter demographic pandering and groveling ("NASCAR dads," "security moms," etc.), that this huge, politically unpopular group of potential voters is both ignored and denied by campaigns because it "might send the wrong message."

Nonetheless, at least voting rights are being restored, and this seems to be a step forward in erasing one of the "invisible punishments" which keep ex-cons from re-entering mainstream society successfully.

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