Nonprofits Work to Restore Ex-Offender Voting Rights

Voting is a fundamental right and a cornerstone of our democracy, yet millions of Americans have had their right to vote revoked for periods ranging from the time spent incarcerated to a lifetime. Nonprofit organizations are playing a major role in efforts to restore voting rights to ex-offenders with felony convictions, and recent developments in Virginia and Washington State highlight the importance of nonprofit involvement in the issue.

In Virginia, there is a huge backlog of ex-offenders seeking to have their voting rights restored. Virginia's current governor, Robert McDonnell (R), inherited approximately 650 of those cases from the previous administration, according to The Washington Post. The Post also asserts that McDonnell's office has received additional applications from 213 nonviolent and 55 violent ex-offenders.

Groups working on the issue told the Post that Virginia has not restored the voting rights of any ex-offenders since McDonnell took office in January. Those that have filed applications have not heard anything regarding their applications. McDonnell said during his gubernatorial campaign that his goal is to have applications processed within 90 days from time of receipt.

Many nonprofits in the state are helping ex-offenders restore their voting rights. The Hampton Roads Missing Voter Project, created to increase voter participation among underrepresented groups, including ex-offenders, has played a major role in those efforts. It has been involved in grassroots efforts to educate ex-offenders and encourage them to complete an application to have their voting rights restored.

Other nonprofits have played a continuing role in efforts to restore ex-offender voting rights in Virginia, as well. The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, and Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants met with Janet Polarek, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia, to discuss the process to restore voting rights.

Nonprofit organizations have also been instrumental in efforts to ensure that the process is not too difficult for ex-offenders to manage. Some civil rights groups have complained that adding a requirement for ex-offenders in Virginia to write a letter seeking to restore their rights will have a disparate impact on minorities and the poor. In most states, voting rights are automatically restored after an individual finishes a prison sentence, parole, or probation.

Nonprofit organizations have also been involved in efforts to restore ex-offender voting rights in Washington State. In Farrakhan v. Gregoire, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel held that current restrictions, which strip individuals convicted of felonies of the right to vote while incarcerated or under Department of Corrections supervision, unfairly discriminate against minorities and violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) and the ACLU both played roles in that case. LDF played a key role as part of the litigation team representing a group of African American, Latino, and Native American ex-offenders who allege that Washington's felon disfranchisement statute disproportionately denies racial minorities the right to vote. The ACLU also filed an amicus brief in the case.

"Plaintiffs’ evidence showed that the rate at which Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are convicted of felony offenses and then disqualified from voting is not reflective of their actual participation in criminal behavior," said Ryan P. Haygood, Co-Director of LDF’s Political Participation Group, in a press release.

On April 28, the Ninth Circuit ordered a rehearing of the case by an en banc panel of 11 judges.

In addition to litigation, LDF has also sought to educate the public about felon disenfranchisement issues. In April, LDF released Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets, a report highlighting the impact that felon disfranchisement laws have on communities of color. "[N]ew efforts to reform felon disfranchisement policies suggest that many lawmakers are beginning to understand that felon disfranchisement is not only discriminatory in its application, but also undermines the most fundamental aspect of American citizenship: the right to participate in the political process," said Haygood.

This issue has not gone without attention in Congress. The Democracy Restoration Act was introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) as S. 1516 and H.R. 3335 on July 24, 2009. The Democracy Restoration Act would allow ex-offenders to vote in federal elections. Resistance to the bill comes from concerns that the legislation would unconstitutionally violate the rights of the states, since most re-enfranchisement issues are dealt with under state law.

Felon disenfranchisement played a significant role in the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections. However, nonprofit organizations throughout the country served to balance the effects, with grassroots and nonprofit organizations educating ex-offenders about their legal rights and urging eligible ex-offenders to vote.

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