Disenfranchised in the 21st Century
As we head into the height of election season, we’re hearing more and more reports of increased restrictions on voter rights. States are limiting early voting periods, enforcing new restrictions on registration drives, and passing voter ID laws requiring citizens to show photo identification before casting their vote. Yet another voting rights debate is often lost in the media shuffle: Whether ex-felons should be denied the right to vote.
In the 2010 midterm election, 5.3 million Americans of voting age were banned from voting, or disenfranchised, because of their felony record. That’s one in 40 voting-age citizens. Only a quarter of that group is currently in jail; the other 4 million have completed their prison time and are living and working in their communities. They have jobs and pay taxes, yet in more than 30 states, these citizens still cannot vote simply because they are on probation or parole. And, in 11 states, ex-felons are prohibited from voting even after completing probation or parole. Though some states have increased probationers’ and parolees’ voting rights over the past 15 years, others have enacted stricter limitations. The Democracy Restoration Act of 2011 (H.R. 2212/S. 2017) would implement a much-needed federal standard to restore voting rights to convicted felons who have successfully completed their time in prison. Further, the act would require law enforcement to inform affected citizens of their voting rights as they leave prison or during their probation sentencing. Felony disenfranchisement laws are often considered an issue of public safety, but there is no danger in ensuring all Americans can exercise their right to vote. Extending voting rights to ex-convicts does not free convicts from jail, nor does it lift probation or parole conditions or erase criminal records. Indeed, an overwhelming majority of Americans favor restoring voting rights to citizens on probation or parole following a felony. The Jewish tradition celebrates and values fairness with regard to voting and elections. Rabbi Yitzhak instructs that “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a). Voting is not only a right but also a responsibility; as citizens, we must cast our votes to elect responsible officials. Felony disenfranchisement both strips citizens of voting rights and prevents them from fulfilling their civic responsibility. Take action today: Urge your representative to co-sponsor the Democracy Restoration Act of 2011! Rachel Chung is a participant in the Machon Kaplan Summer Social Action Internship Program. She is an intern at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.