EDITORIAL: Voting rights vary across U.S.

York Dispatch
  • Voter disenfranchisement is a serious subject, finally getting the attention it deserves.
  • It has its origins in racist policy making meant to keep black citizens from voting.
  • Some 6.1 million voters are ineligible to vote due to felony disenfranchisement.

As voter registration deadlines loom nationwide – Pennsylvania’s is Tuesday, Oct. 11 – a broader and more serious discussion regarding voter disenfranchisement, and its racist origins, has come to the fore.

FILE This Friday Jan. 29, 2016 file photo shows Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe during a press conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. The Virginia Supreme Court has rejected Republican lawmakers' bid to block Gov. Terry McAuliffe's latest effort to restore the voting rights of thousands of felons who've completed their sentences. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

It’s long overdue.

This past week in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe continued to wrangle with the state Legislature over his initiative to restore the voting rights of more than 200,000 convicted felons — former inmates who have served their time and are on parole or probation. And in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would grant voting rights to people convicted of felonies being held in county-run jails.

Additionally, on Sept. 26, the Greater Birmingham Ministries and 10 black Alabamians who are not allowed to vote because of a past felony conviction filed a lawsuit in Montgomery federal court saying the state’s policy of stripping convicted felons of their right to vote is unconstitutional and steeped in a history of racial injustice.

"It is inextricably tied to Alabama's long history of denying black citizens voting rights and equal access to the polls, using the criminal justice system to achieve those goals," lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote in the suit.

The Alabama lawsuit quotes 2014 statistics from the Sentencing Project that estimates more than 260,000 people were blocked from voting in Alabama. Nearly half of those were African-American and equated to 15 percent of the adult black population, according to an Associated Press report.

As the New York Times noted in a recent oped, the felon disenfranchisement laws are “harshest ... in the South, where they were central to the architecture of Jim Crow.” They were blatantly enacted to reverse the effects of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote.

According to the Sentencing Project, “a record 6.1 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of felony disenfranchisement or laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes. The number of disenfranchised individuals has increased dramatically along with the rise in criminal justice populations in recent decades, rising from an estimated 1.17 million in 1976 to 6.1 million today.”

Most states put some restriction on felon voting, but many return those rights automatically at the completion of a prison sentence or probation. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia automatically give some, or most, ex-felons their voting rights back upon the completion of their sentence, according to an April report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Pennsylvania, people in jail or prison convicted of misdemeanors can vote, as can those under house arrest, on probation or parole, living in a halfway house or community corrections center or held in jail awaiting trial. In all cases, the aforementioned voters must cast an absentee ballot.

People in prison or jail for a felony conviction who won’t be released before the election and those convicted of violating Pennsylvania election laws within the past four years may not vote.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union website, if you are already registered to vote, you do not need to do anything to regain your voting rights.

If you are not registered or you need to update your address, you must do so by Tuesday, Oct. 11. You can register to vote and update your personal information at www.votespa.com.