Election 2008

felon civil rights, felon voters
Alan Diaz/AP
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist talks to the media in a 2007 file photo about the plan to allow
felons to get their civil rights back more easily after they serve their sentences . (AP)

Voter Registration Drives Focus on Felons

August 13, 2008 08:58 AM
by Liz Colville
Newly eligible felons are being given a chance to vote in the 2008 elections, and it’s not the doing of either Obama or McCain’s campaigns.

From Rehabilitation to Voter Registration

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Civil rights lawyer Reggie Mitchell, profiled in The Washington Post, is one of many people, primarily Democrats, helping to register ex-felons in several states including Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. Mitchell and the Florida group he heads are “motivated by the belief that former offenders have been unfairly disenfranchised for decades.”

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist helped change Florida state law on felon voting after his election in 2006, allowing felons to vote “as long as they have no charges pending, have paid restitution and have completed probation.”

Maine and Vermont are the only two states that place zero limitations on convicted felons’ voting rights, but groups like the NAACP and ACLU are helping to relax restrictions in many states in time for the presidential election in November, according to the Post.
Though neither of the presidential candidates’ camps is involved in felon registration, Michael Freeman of Florida’s The Ledger argues that this summer’s efforts will most help Ill. Sen. Barack Obama, hypothesizing that the majority of felons will vote Democrat.

But moves by Republicans, including Crist in 2007 and then-governor of Texas George W. Bush in 1997, have demonstrated, as the Sentencing Project puts it, a “reconsideration” of the “wisdom” of felon disenfranchisement laws and the “interests of full democratic participation.”

The Florida voting crisis in 2000 and 2004 included confusion and errors about felon votes. In 2004, it is believed some voters were mistakenly put on felon lists, and felons whose rights had not been restored were given the ability to vote, leading to several law suits. Gov. Crist’s reform ensures that more than 115,000 felons will be eligible this year.

Background: Felon voting rights

Though some believe felon disenfranchisement to be linked to racial discrimination, a 2007 publication for the Federalist Society argues that the laws go farther back than the Civil War era and are “deeply rooted in Western tradition as well as American history. … [F]elon disenfranchisement laws are justified on the basis of the Lockean notion of a social contract,” and disenfranchisement “has traditionally been deemed a part of punishment for committing a crime.”
The American Civil Liberties Union argues that felon disenfranchisement has only worsened over time “as the United States criminal justice system continues to convict and imprison more people than ever before.” Reporting on felon voting rights at home and abroad in 2006, the ACLU concluded that the United States has more restrictions on felon voting rights than many of the other countries it examined, most of which were in Europe.

Opinion & Analysis: Is Crist helping or hurting the GOP?

Many wonder how advantageous moves like Gov. Crist’s can be for the McCain campaign. “Since many of these ex-felons are minorities and very likely are leaving prison with limited education and job skills,” Freeman says, “the assumption is that the big bulk of them will vote Democrat.”
Nevertheless, Crist’s decision to re-enfranchise felons marks a turning point for the Republicans, and it shows “courage and principle,” Christopher Uggen, co-author of “Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy,” told Salon in 2007. Uggen observes that it can be advantageous for a Republican governor to move on this issue. A Democrat could become “instantly vulnerable to the charge that it's a naked power grab.”

Reference: Felony disenfranchisement laws by state

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