Update: Court Rulings Impact Voting Rules Across the Country

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Yesterday I re-blogged an article on voter suppression by Nel’s New Day and added additional information from the Brennan Center for Justice on both increased access in eleven states as well as more background information on voter suppression across the country.

This afternoon, I received an email from the Brennan Center for Justice. It includes more information on the status of voting laws and decisions made in the last couple of weeks in Arkansas, Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. It includes several references to emergency appeals to the US Supreme Court by either the Brennan Center or by other advocates. Here’s that email…

 Court Rulings Impact Voting Rules Across the Country

A series of court decisions in the past few weeks have changed voting rules in several states. Here is a breakdown of the latest developments.

Texas

Current Status: On October 14, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Texas’s restrictive photo ID requirement, which a federal judge had blocked five days earlier. The Brennan Center is part of the legal team representing plaintiffs in the case, who filed an emergency appeal today to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Background: After a lengthy trial in September, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos ruled last week that the Texas legislature enacted the ID law to purposely discriminate against minority voters. She also found more than 600,000 registered voters lack the kind of ID required by Texas’s law.

Wisconsin

Current Status: On October 9, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin’s photo ID law from going into effect for the November election.

Background: Lawmakers initially passed the ID requirement in 2011, but it was blocked before it could go into effect for a major election. In September, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling allowing the law to be put in place immediately. Advocates filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court, arguing implementing the law so close to an election would “cause chaos at the polls.”

North Carolina

Current Status: On October 8, the Supreme Court allowed restrictions on same-day registration and out-of-precinct balloting to remain in effect for the November election.

Background: In 2013, legislators passed a series of laws cutting back on voting. Earlier this month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked two of those restrictions, but the Supreme Court’s October 8 order reversed that decision.

Ohio

Current Status: On September 29, the Supreme Court issued an emergency injunction delaying early voting in Ohio by one week, a day before it was scheduled to begin.

Background: Ohio reduced early voting this year by eliminating Sunday and weeknight hours and ending “Golden Week,” a six-day period where voters could register and vote on the same day. A district court blocked those cuts in early September, but the Supreme Court’s order means they remain intact for the 2014 election.

What’s Next?

Decisions are still pending in:

  • Arkansas – The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the voter ID law October 2. The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief arguing the requirement violates the state constitution.
  • Arizona/Kansas – The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon on new rules requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. The Brennan Center represents the League of Women Voters in a suit challenging the laws.

View all of the Brennan Center’s Election 2014 resources.

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Stay connected. Stay informed. Get involved.

And once again remember to get out and vote on November 4!

Voting Rights for Felons and Ex-Cons

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Voting Rights for Felons and Ex-Cons

Yesterday, a friend of mine called me.  She said that she had been talking to a woman whose partner had a felony record who had served his time for the crime.  Among the several issues they discussed was his frustration that he was no longer able to vote.  Like many people, my friend and the couple she was talking to me about all believe that once someone has been found guilty of a felony, they face a lifetime ban on their constitutional right to vote.

Since primary season is coming up in many places around the country and since most states have voter registration deadlines before their primary election day, I thought I’d provide some background information on this issue.

What is the myth?

Simply stated, the myth is that ex-cons cannot vote – once convicted and forever afterwards. There are at least two errors in this myth:

  • Except for a narrow category of crimes in Mississippi, disenfranchisement does not occur in any state if you are found guilty of a misdemeanor crime.  Even if you spend time in jail for that misdemeanor.
  • Voter disenfranchisement for people with a felony conviction differs by state.  Eleven states permanently disenfranchise some or all current and former felons from voting, but most don’t.

So it all depends on where you live. Here’s what I found out about state laws on this issue from the Brennan Center for Justice

Permanent Disenfranchisement for All Felons

Only four states – Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – permanently disenfranchise current and former felons from voting.  The only way for a person to have their voting rights reinstated is through an “individual rights restoration” process set up by each state.

Permanent Disenfranchisement for Some but Not All Felons

Seven states permanently disenfranchise some, but not all current and former felons from voting.

In Arizona, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied.

In the other six states in this category, you need to check your state law to determine which felony convictions permanently deny you the right to vote. Here’s a quick summary of these laws.

  • In Alabama, you can be permanently barred from voting if your crime is listed in their disenfranchisement list. If the conviction is a “moral turpitude” type of conviction, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence and payment of fines and fees.
  • In Delaware, voting after incarceration can be reinstated five years post-incarceration unless the crime you committed is one among a list of crimes that permanently disenfranchises your right to vote.
  • In Mississippi, you permanently lose your right to vote if you are convicted of any of ten categories of crime, whether that crime is a felony or misdemeanor.  If your crime isn’t on this list, you can vote even while incarcerated.  Note, this is the only state that has a law that permanently bans voting for someone who has created a misdemeanor.
  • In Nevada, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied.  People convicted of violent crimes at any time are permanently barred from voting. Nevada will restore those rights if a pardon is granted or if the court where the conviction originally occurred restores those rights.
  • In Tennessee, if your crime is on the list of crimes that permanently bar you from voting, then you can only have these rights reinstated if you are pardoned.  For all other crimes, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence, payment of fines and fees, and show that you are up to date on all child support payments.
  • In Wyoming, you can have your voting rights restored five years post-incarceration for first-time non-violent crimes.  All others are permanently disenfranchised unless pardoned by the Governor.

Voting Rights Restored Upon Completion of Incarceration, Probation, and Parole

Nineteen states – Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – restore your rights to vote upon completion of your sentence, which includes incarceration, probation, and parole.

In Nebraska, one additionally has to wait two years after completing the sentence before being allowed to vote.

In Washington state, you can lose your right to vote again if you haven’t paid your financial obligations after completing your sentence.

Voting Rights Restored After Incarceration and/or Probation

Five states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, and South Dakota – allow you to vote once you have completed your sentence and/or probation.

In New York, those on probation can have their voting rights restored if they receive either a “Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.”

Voting Rights Immediately Restored After Incarceration

Fifteen states – the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah – immediately restore voting rights upon one’s release from jail or prison. There are no voting restrictions for people on parole or serving probation time.

No Restrictions on Voting for People with a Criminal Record

And just two states – Maine and Vermont – allow anyone otherwise eligible to vote regardless of criminal conviction to vote. Even while incarcerated, on probation, or parole.

Who is most likely to be impacted by this disenfranchisement?

According to the ACLU, people and communities of color are most often disparately impacted by felony disenfranchisement laws. There are over 5.3 million people in the United States that are barred from voting due to a criminal conviction.  The majority of these crimes are non-violent.

Of the 5.3 million disenfranchised, 1.4 million or 26 percent of people with a criminal conviction are African-American citizens.  Considering that black persons make up just 13 percent of the national population, one can immediately see that if you are Black, you are twice as likely to have your voting rights denied.  This means that one in 13 African-Americans across the country are being denied their right to vote.

The myth of an ex-con never being allowed to vote compounds this issue. As previously stated, many believe that once convicted, they can never vote again.

With a widespread belief in this myth as well as a lack of public education to refute it, more and more ex-cons are at risk of not regaining their right to vote. Since actual disenfranchisement disparately impacts people of color, this assumption exacerbates this form of discrimination.

In my opinion, little is done by the government, courts, and communities to educate people and communities about their voting rights when one has been sentenced for a crime.  Exceptions to this come from only a few, non-profit advocacy sources, including the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the Sentencing Project.   There are others, but I believe that these four contain the best resources.

What do you need to do to get registered?

If your state is one of the states that do not permanently disenfranchise people who have completed their sentence (or if you live in Maine or Vermont which has no felony restrictions on voting), you should check out what your state law is regarding registering to vote.  The federal government has a website that has basic information on how to register and what the registration deadlines are by state.  It also has links to every state’s election office website where you can get details about state-specific requirements for voter eligibility.

If you know or believe that you have the right to vote in your state despite having a criminal history and receive a denial to vote when you attempt to register, you should check with an organization that provides legal services to people who have been incarcerated.  You can find a listing of these organizations by state here.  If your state isn’t listed, then the Prison Policy Initiative suggests that you contact one of the national groups that provide voter disenfranchisement assistance.

Once you get registered, GO VOTE!  It’s your right.

Institutional Corruption and the Influence of Money and Politics on People’s Lives

Fountain Pen and SignThis morning, I was scanning Tweets that came into my Twitter account. One of the Tweets said,

“Why the phrase ‘Supreme Court to hear campaign-finance case’ should scare you.”

It contained a link to an article in the Daily Beast. This article said that the US Supreme Court has decided to take another look at campaign financing in a case from the United States District Court in DC called McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. I read the article.

And yes this case scares me. McCutcheon argues that there should be no limits at all on campaign financing.  It scares me because I believe that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of McCutchen, there will be more influence and therefore more institutional corruption on our public policy.  This will then allow the creation of more holes in the safety net for people’s lives due to the corrupting influence of big money. For clarification, institutional corruption is defined as:

[T]he consequence of an influence within an economy of influence that illegitimately weakens the effectiveness of an institution especially by weakening the public trust of the institution.

Why? Because I do not trust the members of the current Supreme Court to openly and fairly take into account that elected officials need to answer to their constituents and not to the people and companies and lobbyists that influence them by throwing lots of money and offering consulting jobs to these elected officials (a form of “money”) once they leave office.

My mistrust results from their decision in the 2009 Citizens’ United case.  They held that the First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent political campaign expenditures from corporations and unions.  The aftermath of this decision has been devastating. Immediately after this decision, the DC Circuit Court (which handles cases involving federal regulations) ruled that

“individuals could make unlimited contributions to so-called Super PACs, which supported individual candidates.”

And what did we see?  In the 2010 elections, Super PACs—mostly funded by the mega-rich—assisted conservative Tea Party candidates at all levels of government to win seats that they would not have otherwise been able to win.  This resulted in a lot of gerrymandering around the country for the incumbents’ self-interest.  And in 2012, $6.2 billion was spent on elections; over $10 million of these funds were given to a small number of Super Pacs by a very small number of mega-wealthy individuals—including the Koch brothers—to influence the outcome of the elections.

If this case overturns what few limits on campaign financing are left, the doors for institutional corruption will be thrown wide open.  Candidates will spend even more time chasing money, mostly soliciting funds from large, non-constituent individuals and corporations.  Most of these individuals are heads of corporations whose special interest is their bottom-line profits and not the interests of the “47%.”

Fred Wertheimer is President of Democracy 21. It is a non-partisan group that works to eliminate the undue influence of big money in the public arena.  He agrees with me that big money corrupts our public institutions. In a press statement on February 19, he said that the

“[A]ggregate limit on contributions by individuals is necessary to prevent circumvention of the limits on contributions to candidates and political parties and the prohibition on federal officeholders soliciting huge corrupting contributions.”

And further, if the Supreme Court either completely guts or weakens campaign financing, this decision

“…would open the door to $1 million and $2 million dollar contributions from an individual buying corrupting influence with a powerful officeholder soliciting these contributions, and with the political party and federal candidates benefiting from these seven figure contributions.”

I believe that it is the local constituent who should be influencing their representatives.  Not corporations. Not big money. And not the 1% at the top of the income ladder who do not live or experience the lives of the people who live in each of our communities.

I am one of the 85% of Americans who view Congress unfavorably because of what they have NOT been doing for people’s lives. Like allowing funds for critical domestic programs to be cut due to the budgetary stalling and delays of the Fiscal Cliff and Hurricane Sandy debates and resulting Sequestration that now looks like it will become reality this coming Friday. Like delaying passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) from being reauthorized for over two years (which, may change tomorrow when and if the House FINALLY votes on the Senate-passed VAWA Act of 2013).  Like talking about but not taking any comprehensive action, so far, to deal with violence and gun safety (for more information on this gun safety issue, read my blogs here and here).

No, I don’t trust the US Supreme Court.  And no, I do not trust Congress. All because of the influence of money on the decisions the do and do not make.

Institutional Corruption is a problem.  We need to reduce that corruption.  We need to empower the small donors.  New York City, as well as Los Angeles and San Francisco have done this.  And in a plan put together by Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and Democracy 21, we could do the same thing as well across the country. Look at the plan and then lobby your legislator, even if you don’t trust him or her. Vote for candidates in the future who pledge to listen to their constituents and not to big money.

This will take a long time.  But it is necessary. Then and only then do I believe that we can and will be able to trust our elected officials to truly represent us and our concerns.

For More Information on Institutional Corruption

For more information, watch the video below. In this 2009 presentation, Lawrence Lessig defines institutional corruption.  He then discusses the probable effects of this undue influence of money (broadly defined) not only on elected officials but its effect on other institutions, such as the EPA and medical research.