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Millions of Americans Banned from Voting

By: Gerri L. Elder

It is a presidential election year again and no matter which candidate you support, it is a fact that they will not be receiving all of the votes that they could be getting if everyone would get out and vote.

Not only that, but even if all the people who are able to vote actually made the effort, according to a recent AlterNet article, there are 5.3 million other people who are of legal age to vote but by law can not cast their ballot because of felony convictions.

Every four years there is a surge of new voter registrations and this time is no different.

Hundreds of thousands of voters who did not vote before or who are only now of voting age are registering and showing up to cast their ballots in hopes of helping shape the future and making a difference. It is encouraging to see all of the new voters excited about democracy but still there is a large part of the population whose voice goes unheard during elections.

Millions Unable to Vote

Millions of Americans who have been convicted of a felony in the past are unable to vote.

While some who are in prison will be unable to vote because they are behind bars, nearly 4 million people who have paid their debt to society and now work and pay taxes are still denied the right to vote because of their past felony convictions. The laws vary from state to state as to how long a felony conviction bars a person from voting but in at least ten states, some felony convictions result in a permanent ban from the ballot box.

In Kentucky and Virginia, no person who has ever been convicted of a felony is able to vote unless they apply for and receive individual, discretionary clemency from their state’s governor.

Felony disenfranchisement laws go way back.

It was between 1865 and 1900 that 18 states adopted laws to restrict the voting rights of criminal offenders. In 1900, 38 states had some type of voting restriction for convicted felons and most prohibited felons from voting unless they received a pardon.

While most of these state laws have been updated, many are still confusing and prohibitive and keep many Americans who could be voting away from the polls. It is often argued that voting disenfranchisement has nothing to do with crime and punishment and serves no legitimate law enforcement purpose.

Lawmakers and advocates making progress in restoring voting rights for convicted felons

Since 1997, 16 states have changed their laws regarding the restoration rights and procedures. Most dramatically, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections became a voter registration agency and currently every person who is released from prison is given a voter registration form.

This is due to a state constitutional amendment approved on Election Day 2006 that automatically restores voter rights to Rhode Island residents upon release from prison. Iowa, Florida and Maryland have also made great strides towards enabling all citizens to vote.

Despite the actions taking place on individual state levels, millions of voters will be excluded from casting a ballot this year unless a law restoring voting rights for felons is addressed on a national level.

This year Congress has decided to do just that – the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill geared towards restoring voting rights to all people who have been released from prison, will be introduced by Senator Russ Feingold and Representative John Conyers.

If successful, the Democracy Restoration Act will not only restore democracy and voting rights to millions of Americans, it may also restore some faith in the voting process.