The Last Disenfranchised Class
Today the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has taken the lead on challenging the voting restriction in court. It reviewed the suit Hayden filed in prison and expanded its scope; in January Hayden's suit became Hayden v. Pataki, a class action on behalf of black and Latino prisoners and parolees in New York, and the handful of communities they come from. The suit charges that the law is discriminatory and unconstitutional. "This really shouldn't be viewed any differently than any other struggle for suffrage in this country," says Janai Nelson, a lawyer on the case. "We excluded women from voting for a long time. We excluded non-property holders, we excluded other minorities, despite the fact that this is really the bedrock of our democracy."
But not everyone buys Nelson's argument. That includes many crime victims and their relatives. "I don't want these people having access to making changes in my life; they have already done that," says Janice Grieshaber, whose daughter Jenna was murdered in Albany in 1997 one week before she was to graduate from nursing school. Grieshaber says it's really pretty simple: People who don't follow the laws shouldn't have a say in making them.
Yet even Grieshaber makes a distinction between the rights of violent and nonviolent criminals. As she sees it, someone locked up because of drugs or a white-collar crime is a more sympathetic figure than, say, someone convicted of manslaughter. And some politicians and criminologists agree. Chris Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who studies felon disenfranchisement, says those fighting for felons' right to vote would have a better chance of success if they focused on nonviolent criminals. But Nelson remains unswayed. "This is what it means to be an American," she says. "Regardless of whether or not you're a good American, a law-abiding American, a PC American, really the right to vote does not vary based on our different ideas about what we would ideally like you to be as a person in this country."
Others remain more pragmatic. Legislation introduced by Congressman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, seeks (so far unsuccessfully) to grant the vote to ex-prisoners. An election reform commission on which sit former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, set up after the Florida debacle in 2000, made a similar suggestion. "A strong case can be made in favor of restoration of voting rights when an individual has completed the full sentence...including any period of probation or parole," reads their 2001 report. Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Demo-crat, tried to make Carter's suggestion a reality when he offered an amendment to an election reform package passed last year. The amendment failed.
Nevertheless, most Americans are in favor of such a move; a poll taken last year showed that 80 percent of Americans support restoring the vote to ex-felons who have completed their sentences.
Chris Uggen found that had felons been allowed to vote in the last presidential election, hanging chads would have never been an issue. Uggen looked at the closely contested 2000 election and discovered that had felons had the vote, Al Gore would have likely won the popular vote by more than a million votes. In Florida alone, Gore would have picked up 60,000-80,000 votes--enough to swamp the narrow victory margin declared for George Bush. Uggen also found that had felons--even just those who had completed their sentences--voted over the past couple of decades, races across the country might have looked very different. One critical difference could have been control of the US Senate. Republicans including John Warner of Virginia and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would likely have lost in past elections, according to Uggen, which may be part of the reason Senator McConnell told his senatorial colleagues when Reid's amendment was being debated on the floor: "We are talking about rapists and murderers, robbers and even terrorists or spies."