by Freddie Allen
NNPA News Service
WASHINGTON – Nearly 6 million former prisoners –1 million of them African Americans – will not be able to vote in the November presidential election because of state laws that continue to punish them even after they have completed their sentences, according to a recent report by the Sentencing Project.
The report said 5.85 million citizens who were formerly incarcerated will be prevented from voting.
"The most telling indicator of citizenship in the United States is that ability to cast a vote," said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a non-profit group focused on restoring the civil rights of ex-offenders. "If you don't have a voice you might as well be a slave."
Eleven states disenfranchise ex-offenders after they have completed their sentences: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming. Those 11 states account for 45 percent of the entire disenfranchised population.
The report also found that African Americans lose their right to vote at a rate that is four times higher than non-African Americans. If the presidential election were held today, more than 20 percent of African Americans living in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia wouldn't be able to vote.
Meade, a Florida native, served a prison sentence from 2001-04 for multiple crimes, the most serious being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm. He won't be able to vote in this year's presidential election and maybe the next because Florida has some of the toughest felon disenfranchisement laws on the books.
The Sentencing Project was one of the first groups in the late 1990s to study the impact of the disenfranchisement restrictions. Once the information from the studies started getting out, momentum to change the laws began to build.
In 2007, Maryland lifted the lifetime voting ban on ex-felons and Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote. In Iowa, however, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad overturned an executive order that restored voting rights to ex-felons, an executive order signed into law by the former Gov. (now Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) Tom Vilsack, a Democrat. Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott reinstated a five-year waiting period for non-violent ex-offenders before they could apply to regain their voting privileges.
Courtney Stewart, chairman of The Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, said many ex-offenders don't understand the voting process and how crucial the right to vote is when it comes to reclaiming their rights.
Public opinion polls show that many Americans agree that reformed citizens deserve to have their rights restored. Christopher Uggens, a criminologist at the University of Minnesota and one of the researchers that worked on The Sentencing Project report, found that 80 percent of those polled favored restoring voting rights for ex-felons, and 60 percent agreed that probationers and parolees should also have the right to vote. Support for voting rights dropped below 50 percent for those still imprisoned.
Meade tells "returning citizens" that, "If you can't vote (yourself), take five people to the polls and that's how you can empower yourself, that's how you can make a difference, and that's how we can come together and actually make a change."