Dugan: End felon disenfranchisement to strengthen democracy

BY JACK DUGAN | MARCH 27, 2015 5:00 AM

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It has been estimated that roughly 5.3 million Americans have lost their right to vote as the result of criminal convictions. This is a staggering number, considering the popular vote of last presidential election was decided by a similar difference, with President Obama winning by 4.98 million votes.

If disfranchisement of ex-cons is of a number significant enough to sway presidential elections, then why do we leave these individuals gagged after they’ve served their sentences? The right to vote is the bedrock on which the democratic machine is built, and to revoke this right from a citizen is, to put it simply, not democratic.

The Democracy Restoration Act, introduced in the current 114th Congress by congressional Democrats and will hopefully be enacted by the 115th, is a step toward repairing our crippled democratic engine. This act, if passed, would allow Americans with criminal convictions to participate in the election system once again, and given that ex-cons become citizens eligible to be taxed the moment they’re released, rightfully so.

These individuals could be anyone like the recent machete mall marauder to that old friend from high school who makes extra cash selling dime bags of dirt weed to his neighbors between shifts at the Kum & Go. Of course, most would agree that after serving the federally mandated sentence given to those selling small amounts of controlled substances, one ought to be able to vote on the laws that have already so heavily affected their life. As for the former? Well, he’ll probably spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement dreaming of late-night cutlery infomercials, so I don’t think we’ll have to worry about him.

Disfranchisement was a tactic used to hinder the progress of minority communities in the shameful Jim Crow era of our nation’s past, and the revocation of suffrage of ex-cons is the grimy residue of that history. With the statistically biased drug war waged on those same minority communities in this day and age (a 2010 ACLU report found a black person is 3.73 more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person), it is essential that we acknowledge the importance of remedying those residual aspects, such as the disfranchisement of ex-cons.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has introduced a limited version of the bill, which would reinstate the right to vote for nonviolent offenders only. Perhaps this is a compromise worth settling for, but I stand by the notion that any individual who lives under our laws or threat of punishment and incarceration of law should have a voice. How democratic is a nation that not only has one of the highest incarceration rates of a developed nation but also strips those people of the most essential and important aspect of a democracy: the agency to vote for those laws which have destroyed their lives?

Even then, with dismal voter turnout, the national average sitting at an embarrassing 36.4 percent (which the New York Times has said as “the worst in 72 years”) for this term’s midterm elections, why not let those who wish to take part in our democratic system vote? Our democratic system is struggling in so many ways, and this bill acts as patchwork on the fraying fringes of a crippled voting populace.

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