The Last Disenfranchised Class
For their part, Democrats in Congress have not rushed to champion the issue. Appearing soft on crime might cost Democrats more votes than they would gain, suggests Uggen. Also, felons are a constituency that can't exactly fill Democratic coffers, say Washington insiders, so they don't get a lot of attention. Janai Nelson of the legal defense fund says that when it comes to expanding the franchise, those in power are content with the status quo. "They are already successful. They've made their way into office and they've relied on the political system as it exists, and very few people want to rock the boat and bring in a new constituency that they may not be familiar with," she says.
At an NAACP candidate forum this summer, presidential candidates John Kerry, Bob Graham, Howard Dean, Carol Moseley Braun, John Edwards and Al Sharpton said they supported restoring the right to vote to ex-felons, though Edwards and Graham voted against Reid's amendment last year. (Kerry voted for it.) Joseph Lieberman, who did not attend, did support Reid. In 2003, Dennis Kucinich, who was not at the forum, co-sponsored a similar bill by John Conyers in the House calling for ex-felons to be allowed to vote. Dick Gephardt favors leaving the issue to the states.
For her part, Jan Warren wonders: What happened to rehabilitation? And what about the women she met in prison who struck out in self-defense against violent husbands and rapists? Or those who were wrongly convicted? In January, then-Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned Madison Hobley, who spent thirteen years on death row for murder. At a nationally televised press conference, the governor said Hobley and three other death-row inmates were wrongly prosecuted, and called the system that convicted them "wildly inaccurate, unjust...and, at times, a very racist system."
When it was Hobley's chance to speak, it wasn't the fact that his life was spared that he wanted to talk about. "I said I can't wait to vote again, it was the first thing I wanted to do," said Hobley. "Two weeks after I got out I made sure to get my voter's registration card, and all the officials that turned their head on me, now I've got a chance to get back at them and vote them out."
History is a slow process, but time seems to be on the side of expanding the franchise. "It will be a decades-long struggle but it has the potential to be decade-defining for those members of society who are the most stigmatized and the most invisible," says Robin Templeton, who is now directing an effort in New York, Maryland, Texas, Alabama and Florida focused on restoring voting rights to prisoners. In recent years, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and New Mexico have passed less restrictive disenfranchisement laws, and there are legal challenges pending in Florida and Washington State as well as New York. Hayden v. Pataki is expected to come to trial in 2005.