Monday, January 19, 2009

Civics and Corrections: A Reminder

As we get ready to watch the momentous transfer of power on Capitol Hill tomorrow, I thought we'd ponder for a moment about the rationale behind excluding prisoners, and in some cases ex-felons, from the right to vote.

Four years ago, released prisoners on parole, and probationers, were surprised to find out that they had a right to vote in California. Activists have been working on raising awareness of the right to vote among those who have been, for a while, excluded from the civic process. In other states, such as Florida, in some cases voting rights can only be restored after a hearing.

In their excellent book Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen uncover some of the reasons why the American system does not award voting rights to its prisoners. Disturbingly, they draw links between felon disenfranchisement and racism, which go beyond a mere coincidence. Even more interestingly, they marshall empirical data, meticulously collected and analyzed, to prove that, had felons been allowed to vote, two presidential elections (1960 and 2000), and several Senatorial elections, would have been reversed.

Some change has already occurred after the publication of the book, as some states loosened restrictions on voting rights. And, as some readers may know, many countries around the world see no problem in allowing prisoners (current and released) to participate in voting.

This weekend, Parade Magazine published a letter from President-Elect Obama to his daughters and to every child in the country. Obviously, our children, whose future we hold so dear and care so much about, did not vote in the last elections. The Presidential stewardship, as Obama so movingly said in his acceptance speech, transcends those who voted for him; it extends to those who voted for other candidates, and hopefully will also extend to other groups who did not have the privilege to vote at all. As many of us hope for change in many ways, we can hope that our future paths and endeavors also direct us to re-entry, restoration and reintegration after punishment.

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