Disenfranchisement News: The Sentencing Project
In Florida, the only way for many people with a felony conviction to regain their civil rights is to petition the governor for clemency. Mother Jones recently analyzed more than 1,000 pages of clemency hearing transcripts to assess how Jeb Bush—now a Republican presidential candidate—oversaw the process during his tenure as governor, from 1999-2007. According to Mother Jones, Bush seemed to rely on “an entrenched set of personal values” to determine whether an applicant’s rights should be restored, including how much time had elapsed since imprisonment, how sufficiently the applicant displayed remorse, whether or not they had a good driving record, and how long the person had been sober. Despite these criteria, regaining the right to vote often came down to luck. “It reminds me of the serfs entering the castle and asking for assistance from the king. And depending upon how they feel that day, you might get it—or not,” says Ion Sancho, longtime supervisor of elections in Leon County, which includes Tallahassee.
In 2002, black state legislators successfully sued the state for failing to provide people with felony convictions with the paperwork needed to apply for restoration, forcing the administration to review an additional 155,000 applications. To manage the additional applicants, Bush simplified the application process and allowed certain people with low-level convictions to have their rights automatically restored. Despite this effort to streamline the process, Bush ultimately approved just one-fifth of the 385,522 applications for civil rights submitted during his time in office.
Judge Arthur Gamble recently upheld a state law that bans people with felony convictions from voting, as well as an executive order that requires people with a felony conviction to petition the governor in order to have their rights restored. The ruling came down in the case of Kelli Jo Griffin, who thought her voting rights had been restored after she completed her probation for a non-violent drug offense. She was charged with voter fraud, but a jury last year found her not guilty. Griffin and the ACLU of Iowa challenged the state’s disenfranchisement laws after the Iowa Supreme Court questioned whether all felonies necessarily constitute an “infamous crime”—which the Iowa Constitution states would disqualify a person from voting. In Gamble’s dismissal of Griffin’s lawsuit, he noted that the court should identify which felony convictions should lead to exclusion from voting. Griffin plans to appeal the case to the Iowa Supreme Court.
In a recent interview on NewsOne, U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) discussed his proposed bill to restore voting rights in federal elections to people who have completed their prison sentence. “As the nation moves towards criminal justice reform, reducing mandatory minimums and improving opportunities for people to reenter society, we have to look at the holistic individual in terms of their participation and their reentry. Part of that is regaining their franchise as it relates to someone’s ability to vote, to participate, to have their voices heard,” says Rep. Jeffries. He also highlighted the problem of prison gerrymandering, where states count incarcerated individuals as residents of the counties in which they are imprisoned—all while denying incarcerated individuals the right to vote. According to Rep. Jeffries, incarcerated individuals are being “used” in the population count to bolster funds for the predominately white rural counties in which most prisons are located, even though many individuals leaving prison return to urban inner city communities.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch called for voting rights restoration for people with felony convictions at the Congressional Black Caucus 45th Annual Legislative Conference. “The ultimate participation in the American experiment called Democracy is of course the right to vote. That is why the Department of Justice continues to call for all states to revisit the issue of felon disenfranchisement – let them vote. Let them vote,” said Attorney General Lynch.
In New Zealand, the High Court has recently ruled that the 2010 Electoral Amendment Act, which bans all people from voting in prison, is inconsistent with the country’s Bill of Rights. Justice Paul Heath ruled that the law had “arbitrary consequences” in that a person imprisoned for just a few months could not vote if incarcerated on Election Day, while a person imprisoned for a few years between election cycles is still eligible to vote. The High Court’s ruling does not automatically invalidate the bill. Parliament would still have to pass legislation to lift the blanket ban on voting in prison. According to New Zealand law professor Andrew Geddis, this was the first time the High Court declared a law inconsistent with the Bill of Rights, which acted as an “official notice” to Parliament that they had passed a “bad law.”