Legislation Introduced to Restore Voting Rights for People Who Have Finished Prison Sentence

Press Release September 30, 2008
Media Contact

Jasmine Tyler at 202-294-8292

Federal legislation was introduced this week that would permit individuals who have been previously convicted of a crime, have completed their prison term and are living in the community the right to vote in federal elections. The Democracy Restoration Act of 2008 (DRA, S. 6340, H.R. 7136) was introduced in both chambers of Congress by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).

The U.S. currently denies 5.3 million, or one in 41, citizens the right to vote due to felony convictions and is the only democracy that disenfranchises citizens who have completed their prison sentence. The DRA restores voting rights to individuals who have returned from prison or were never sentenced to a prison term. Because periods of supervised release, probation or parole can last decades and is part of a person’s sentence, reinfranchising individuals after completing their sentence would not ensure the same access to the ballot box as this measure does by giving voting rights back to people already living in our communities. This bill would also instruct officials in each state to notify individuals of their restored right to ensure access to the ballot.

Nineteen states, including Maryland, Texas and Florida, have reformed felony disenfranchisement laws over the last decade, increasing voter participation through bipartisan reform efforts. These reform efforts have set the stage for Congress to act and, although there is little time to enact this legislation this year, it lays the groundwork for restoration in the near future.

“Once passed, this bill will mean that people who are living in society and paying taxes will no longer be second class citizens,” said Jasmine L. Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Regaining the right to vote after prison means formerly incarcerated individuals will have every opportunity to be civically engaged and influence the political process as everyday Americans.”

No group has been harder hit by disenfranchisement than African Americans. After gaining the right to vote in 1965, and overcoming the history of slavery and racism that overshadowed our country’s early history, African Americans suffered a new form of Jim Crow under the guise of the modern-day war on drugs. Thirteen percent of African-American men have been denied the right to vote because of felony conviction, the majority of these convictions stem from drug law enforcement. Although drug use rates are similar for both African Americans and whites, African Americans make up more than half of those convicted of felony drug charges. Upon introduction of the DRA, Sen. Feingold, addressing the President, said “…;the practice of disenfranchising people with felony convictions has an explicitly racist history. Like the grandfather clause, the literacy test, and the poll tax, civil death became a tool of Jim Crow.”

“Unjust policing practices, misuse of prosecutorial power, and lack of judicial discretion all converge to create the judicial system that African Americans experience, namely injustice, and it has led us to the newest installment of racialized community suppression: the war on drugs,” Tyler said. “At least in federal elections, this legislation will change that.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

Sign up for updates from DPA.