Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our legislators in both DC and Wisconsin are leading on voting rights

On Friday, July 24, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and Congressman John Conyers introduced federal legislation to restore the right to vote to ex-offenders immediately upon release into their communities nationwide. This legislation called the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA) is similar to the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration Act (WDRA) introduced last week by State Senator Lena Taylor, State Assembly Rep Tamara Grigsby and 16 other state senators and assembly representatives across the state.

The Restore the Vote Wisconsin NOW! Coalition supports this important voting rights legislation along with over 70 labor, voting rights, corrections, law enforcement, faith and community organizations in Wisconsin and nationally. We are working to restore the right to vote to people who have been deemed safe to return to our communities to work, go to school, raise families and pay taxes while they reintegrate into society.

In Wisconsin, people with felony convictions are not allowed to vote after they are released from incarceration. Once "off paper," or when they are finished with all probation and parole, these citizens can then register. It is estimated that over 62,000 citizens in Wisconsin cannot vote: only 39% of them are still behind bars while 40% are on probation and 21% are on parole. See how Wisconsin compares to other states' policies.

Nationally, each state sets its own voting restrictions and thus each state has a spectrum of rules on how people with past felony convictions can vote. Virginia and Kentucky take voting rights away permanently, while Maine and Vermont allow people with felony convictions to vote even while they are still incarcerated. With a lack of consistency in eliminating discrimination based on conviction record, the Democracy Restoration Act is needed to eliminate the confusion and misinformation that often happens around Election Day. An estimated 5.3 million citizens cannot vote as a result of felony convictions, and nearly 4 million of those individuals are living and working in their communities.

“The Democracy Restoration Act is necessary to restore the voting rights of millions of American citizens who have had their right to vote revoked because of a past felony conviction," said Deborah Vagins, national ACLU Legislative Council. "These citizens work, pay taxes, live in our communities and bring up families, yet they are without a voice.

“Worse still, felony disfranchisement laws are rooted in the Jim Crow era and were intended to bar minorities from voting. To this day, they continue to have a disproportionate impact on minority communities. Moreover, revoking the right to vote for millions of citizens is not only undemocratic, it is counterproductive to the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of those released from prison.”

Get a copy of the ACLU's factsheet on the Democracy Restoration Act. You can also find more information on felon disfranchisement in the co-authored ACLU and Brennan Center report.

For more information on the Democracy Restoration Act or the Wisconsin DRA or the Restore the Vote WI NOW! Coalition, please contact Renee Crawford, or (414) 331-8907