Should Every Vote Count?

The struggle for voting rights has been a long one in the black community. From literacy tests to Jim Crow laws, blacks in America have had much to overcome to gain power at the polls. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) says many blacks are still being unfairly denied the right to vote — ex-offenders.

A part of the Count Every Vote Act, Tubbs Jones has introduced legislation that will give ex-offenders the right to vote in federal elections upon completion of their sentence. She believes laws denying ex-offenders voting rights contradict the idea of democracy. “If you don’t vote, you lose your voice,” she says. “If we believe in a system of justice, and people have paid their debt to society, then they’re entitled to be re-enfranchised.”

According to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice policy research and advocacy organization, 1.4 million African American men have lost the right to vote as a result of felony convictions — a rate nearly seven times higher than all U.S. felons.

While 38 states (including the District of Columbia) allow ex-felons to vote, three states impose lifetime bans for all ex-felons, and 10 regulate which ex-felons will regain voting privileges or when they will be allowed to vote again. Maine and Vermont, which have some of the lowest black populations in the country, are the only states that allow all current and former felons to vote.

Tubbs Jones’ proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), is the latest attempt to restore voting rights to ex-felons. Tubbs Jones says denying felons the right to vote helps put former convicts on the wrong track.

David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies says this type of legislation has proved unsuccessful in the past and most likely will not garner much support in this Congress. Bositis says many in the Republican majority see felony disenfranchisement as a partisan debate, not a voting rights issue: “The majority of ex-felons are African Americans. They would most likely vote Democrat. So why would Republicans help Democrats?” Others, he notes, simply believe it’s unfair for someone who broke the law to have voting privileges again.

Bositis also believes that any significant changes to ex-felon voting policy will be made at the state, not federal, level because each state has the power to determine who is qualified to vote. Several state legislatures have already debated or passed laws changing felon voting rights. This summer, Iowa’s governor issued an executive order repealing permanent disenfranchisement for ex-offenders in the Hawkeye state. But so far, Congress has not enacted any such legislation.

The NAACP argues that there is a federal responsibility to ensure voter rights. “Since the right to vote is a federal one, it calls for a federal remedy,” says NAACP General Counsel Dennis Courtland Hayes. Hayes notes that the NAACP is currently involved in litigation that would ensure that blacks who have paid their debt to society are able to vote.

Tubbs Jones remains hopeful that her bill will succeed. “My colleagues