National News: ACLU Response to Yesterday’s House Hearing on Voting Rights for Ex-Offenders

17 Mar

Democracy Restoration Act Needed To Restore Fundamental Civil Rights, Says ACLU

A federal House Judiciary Subcommittee held a hearing in Washington D.C. yesterday on restoring voting rights in federal elections to millions of Americans who have been disfranchised because of criminal convictions. The American Civil Liberties Union commends the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties for holding the hearing, and submitted a written statement to leaders in the House to pass the Democracy Restoration Act, H.R. 3335, a bill that would restore one of the most fundamental rights – the right to vote – to millions of disfranchised Americans.

“Nearly four million people in America are working, paying taxes, and raising families in our communities, yet they are unable to cast a ballot,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The strength of America’s democracy relies on the civic involvement of its citizens, and the Democracy Restoration Act would ensure that all citizens who are not incarcerated can head to the polls to have their voices heard.”

The Democracy Restoration Act would restore voting rights in federal elections to millions of Americans who have been released from prison, ensure that probationers never lose their right to vote in federal elections and notify people about their right to vote in federal elections. The uniform federal standard in this bill would eliminate confusion for citizens and election administration officials alike due to variations in state law. Several law enforcement officials, members of the faith community and civil rights and legal organizations have spoken out in support of this legislation.

“By denying citizens the right to vote because of a criminal conviction, the government endorses a system that expects citizens to contribute to the community, but bars them from participating in the democratic process,” said Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Thankfully, the Jim Crow era in which most of these voting policies originated is long gone – but its impact sadly continues. It’s time that the polls opened their doors to allow all citizens in our communities the chance have their voices heard in the political process. The restoration of this basic civil right is long overdue.”

States have vastly different approaches to permitting citizens with criminal convictions to vote. Some states permanently disfranchise some, but not all, citizens with felony convictions, while others allow voting after a sentence is completed or after release from prison. Two states, Virginia and Kentucky, permanently disfranchise citizens with felony convictions unless the state approves individual rights restoration. Two other states, Maine and Vermont, allow all persons with felony convictions to vote, even while incarcerated. Other states fall somewhere in between. Unfortunately, there has been widespread confusion about the proper administration of state laws that has contributed to the disfranchisement of even eligible citizens.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee’s hearing on the Democracy Restoration Act can be streamed live at: http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/caltoday.html

The ACLU statement submitted to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in support of the Democracy Restoration Act (HR 3335) is available online.

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