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No Right to Vote for Parolees

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The Colorado Supreme Court today decided that offenders on parole may not regain the right to vote. It’s a bad decision. As a commentary in the Denver Post noted on July 16, “Allowing parolees to vote would rebuild lives.” Of the 28,000 persons in Colorado denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction, 6,000 to 7,000 of them are on parole.

“. . . they are living, working and raising families alongside the rest of us. Though they pay taxes and are concerned about the future of their communities, they have no say in the way their lives are governed.” Restoring their rights promotes faith in the possibility of inclusion and fair representation in the political process. It is time for Colorado to give people with felony convictions the chance to participate as full citizens.”

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Colorado now will remain among the 12 states nationwide that denies voting rights to those on parole. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), wrote:

The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) once put it this way:

Our democracy is weakened when one sector of the population is blocked out of the voting process.

There’s also the racial factor to consider:

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The racial impact of disenfranchisement laws is particularly egregious. Thirteen percent of African American men–1.4 million–are disenfranchised, representing just over one-third (36 percent) of the total disenfranchised population. In two states, our data show that almost one in three black men is disenfranchised. In eight states, one in four black men is disenfranchised. If current trends continue, the rate of disenfranchisement for black men could reach 40 percent in the states that disenfranchise ex-offenders.

How did we get these laws?

Disenfranchisement in the U.S. is a heritage from ancient Greek and Roman traditions carried into Europe. In medieval Europe, “infamous” offenders suffered “civil death” which entailed “the deprivation of all rights, confiscation of property, exposure to injury and even to death, since the outlaw could be killed with impunity by anyone.”2 In England, civil disabilities intended to debase offenders and cut them off from the community were accomplished via bills of attainder: a person attained after conviction for a felony was subject to forfeiture of property, stripped of the ability to inherit or bequeath property and considered civilly dead–unable to bring suit or perform any other legal function. English colonists brought these concepts with them to North America. With independence, the newly formed states rejected some of the civil disabilities inherited from Europe; criminal disenfranchisement was among those retained.

The laws are an anachronism.

Felony voting restrictions in the U.S. are political anachronisms reflecting values incompatible with modern democratic principles. At the edge of the millennium these laws have no purpose. To the contrary, they arbitrarily deny convicted offenders the ability to vote regardless of the nature of their crimes or the severity of their sentences, they create political “outcasts” from taxpaying, law-abiding citizens who are ex-offenders, they distort the country’s electoral process and they diminish the black vote, countering decades of voting rights gains.

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As for a better law:

Given the major impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on the voting population, and in particular their strikingly disproportionate impact on African Americans, policymakers should consider alternative policies that will better protect voting rights without injury to legitimate state criminal justice interests. We believe the best course of action would be to remove conviction-based restrictions on voting rights. At the federal level, Congress should enact legislation to restore voting rights in federal electionsto citizens convicted of a felony, so that the ability to vote in federal elections is not subject to varying state laws. State legislatures should also eliminate state laws that curtail the franchise for persons with felony convictions within their states.

The issue before the Colorado Supreme Court was a pretty technical one based on a 1995 law that specifically bans those on parole from voting:

The constitution says that no one “confined in any public prison” can vote but that voting rights are restored when a convict completes the “full term of imprisonment” or is pardoned. ….Colorado law denies felons the right to vote while they are serving their sentences, and the justices said in a unanimous opinion that parole must be considered part of a sentence.

The argument was:

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Volunteer ACLU attorney Norm Mueller, who represents Danielson and the other plaintiffs, has said parole did not exist until 23 years after the state Constitution was ratified in 1876, and that the state Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that statutes can’t change the plain meaning of constitutional provisions.

The Court ruled:

“Of course we agree with Danielson that parole did not exist at the time Colorado adopted its constitution, but this does not mean that the General Assembly was constrained from punishing crimes with sentences that include custody while the convicted person is being transitioned to community and before restoration of his or her full rights,” the ruling said.

The New York Times opined today, voting rights are human rights.

This point was underscored last week in a scalding report from the UN Human Rights Committee, which held hearings last month to determine how well the United States was complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which America ratified in 1992. In a common-sense report, the committee said that blanket disenfranchisement was inconsistent with the covenant and disproportionately affects minorities. The report urged America to restore voting rights to citizens who have served their sentences or who are released on parole.

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Today’s ruling was an unfortunate setback. It’s time for the Colorado legislature and Congress to change the law.

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