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Felon Disenfranchisement: Key Component of Voter Suppression

Over at TomPaine.com, Kara Gotsch, advocacy director of The Sentencing Project has an update on what is arguably the GOP's most powerful tool for voter suppression -- felon disenfranchisement. Gotsch sums up the problem succinctly:

...an estimated 5.3 million Americans. Forty-eight states (all but Maine and Vermont) and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense. In 35 states, people on parole also cannot vote. And, in the dozen most regressive states, the right to vote can be permanently denied to people with felony records.

That's right, a dozen states don't care if you have served your time and paid your debt to society. You still can't vote -- ever.

Gotsch explains how these laws target African Americans, the most reliable constituency of the Democratic Party:

During the Jim Crow era, disenfranchisement laws in southern states were revised to silence the political voice of newly emancipated slaves. Today, racial disparities in the criminal justice system contribute to dramatic rates of felony disenfranchisement for African Americans. Thirteen percent of black men are disenfranchised and as many as 40 percent of black men are projected to lose their right to vote in states that disenfranchise after completion of sentence....

The 2006 elections have increased momentum for reforms to restore voting rights to ex-felons. Reform legislation has been introduced in 20 states. This is critically important in Florida, where Gotsch notes that one million felons have been disenfranchised for life, thanks in part to the leadership of former Governor Jeb Bush. Reformers are hopeful that the new Republican Governor Charles Crist will rise above partisan concerns and sign an executive order restoring voting rights to hundreds of thousans of Floridians who have served their time.

Democrats increased their strength substantially in the state legislatures and among the governorships in the '06 elections, and now have an unprecedented opportunity to reinstate voting rights to ex-felons. Strengthening a mass movement to restore voting rights to those who have served their time ought to be a top priority of state Democratic parties in '07 --- a cause that serves justice, as well as their party's future.