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Restoring the right to vote for all

Volunteers with a voter education and registration campaign in New York City. Photo: New York / AFSC

It's time to end felony disenfranchisement and restore voting rights to those involved in the criminal justice system.

In 2016, when we last elected a president, 6.1 million Americans were denied access to the polls because of racist laws that bar people with felony convictions from voting. Today, presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are touting their plans to reform the criminal justice system – end the war on drugs, release many convicted of nonviolent offenses, end cash bail, and so on. While all of these changes are necessary and overdue, the single most important reform we can make today is ending felony disenfranchisement.

Until we restore the right to vote to all, our elections will be undemocratic and the results illegitimate.

Felony disenfranchisement remains the U.S.’s longest-standing form of voter suppression. Coupled with 40 years of mass incarceration, felony disenfranchisement has silenced the African-American’s political voice in ways that eclipse the “Black codes” of the 1860s and the Jim Crow laws of the 1950s. Today one in 13 African-Americans are denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project.

The injustice of felony disenfranchisement has penetrated the electoral process in all but two states in the U.S. Outside of Maine and Vermont, where people vote from their prison cells, the denial is devastating and far reaching. The impacts of these disenfranchisement laws on Black and poor communities cannot be overstated. Political engagement is quashed, and political strength is decimated, resulting in perpetual and intentional powerlessness of people of color and the poor. This strategic incapacitation of people fuels continued poverty, is driven by systemic racism, and stymies notions of equal and human rights.

Voter registration drive in New York City. Photo: AFSC/New York

Not only does felony disenfranchisement contribute to the class and race bias in the electorate, it has generational impacts. As more and more African-Americans along with other people of color are disenfranchised, their children and grandchildren become less politically engaged and don’t vote, and their communities lose out on needed resources.

While states including Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, and New Mexico have taken measures to right this injustice, there has been pushback, as well. In Florida last year, two-thirds of voters restored the right to vote to more than a million people who had been subject to lifetime disenfranchisement for a felony conviction. But earlier this year, the governor signed into a law the equivalent of a poll tax to disenfranchise them again.

As millions in Florida and across this country continue their struggle to be recognized, I’m reminded of the words of my friend Larry White. Larry voted for the first time at age 77 after over 40 years of being disenfranchised and said, “I now matter, my opinion counts.”

Over the next year, candidates from across the political spectrum will be vying for our votes – while allowed to ignore the voices and needs of so many because of racist felony disenfranchisement laws. We must challenge them – as well as our elected officials in office – to end this structural injustice once and for all so that every one us matter and no one is silenced again.

Here’s what you can do today:

1. Contact your governor and urge them to restore voting rights.

All but two states, Maine and Vermont, limit access to the polls for those with criminal justice involvement. Take action today by telling your governor that the right to vote should never be taken away!

2. Ask candidates if the support ending felony disenfranchisement.

During election season, you have a unique opportunity to get candidates on the record about issues that are important to you — and to influence their opinions.

You can do this by seeking out a candidate (for Congress, state legislatures, or any public office), asking them where they stand on issues you care about, and documenting their responses to share with the public.

Visit our “bird-dogging” resource for tips on questioning political candidates on the campaign trail.

Here’s a sample script you can use:

“Here in [your state], many people are barred from exercising their right to vote because of involvement in the criminal justice system. I believe the right to vote should never be taken away. Will you protect our right to vote by working to end felony disenfranchisement?”

Note: You can customize your question by sharing a story (your own or that of someone in your community who is affected by this issue) or urging candidates to support or oppose specific legislation in your state. 


About the Author

Lewis Webb is the Healing Justice program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in New York. After graduating from law school, Lewis has dedicated his entire professional career to criminal justice issues. At AFSC, Lewis focuses on decreasing New York’s prison population by addressing paths to incarceration and increasing opportunities for release through sentencing and parole

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