Like all other ex-felons in New York State, Jean Sanders cannot vote
while he's on parole. But because he is also barred from staying out past
10 p.m. or driving a car, disfranchisement does not top his list of
concerns. When his parole ends in 2004, he will be free to cast his
If, however, Sanders had been released in any of 10 other
states--Alabama, Iowa and Nevada among them--he would probably never be
allowed to vote. In others, he would have to wait years longer.
Currently, an estimated 1.6 million ex-felons nationwide cannot vote,
according to Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen, authors of the forthcoming
book Locking Up the Vote. Nearly a third of them are black.
Quick Vote Should a convicted felon be allowed to
Florida has the largest number of adults--roughly
half a million--barred from voting because of a felony conviction. That's
a threefold increase since 1988. In September 2000, a class action filed
against Governor Jeb Bush charged that the lifetime ban is unconstitutional.
"When you have 1 in 20 adult citizens denied the right to vote, it
strains the notion that we're operating as a full democracy," says
Nancy Northup, lead attorney on the case.
The lead plaintiff is Thomas Johnson, 53, a pastor. A decade ago,
Johnson served eight months in prison for selling crack and carrying a
gun. Back then, he lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn, two blocks from the house
where Sanders grew up. While Johnson and Sanders don't know each other,
they have much in common. Johnson was a junkie for 33 years, he says,
until he turned to religion in 1995. Johnson has had no other
convictions. Since 1996, he has run a successful residency program for
ex-offenders in Gainesville, Fla., where he has a family and volunteers
as a chaplain at the county jail. But when he tried to register to vote
in 1999, he was turned away.
Over the past few years, five states have loosened their restrictions
on felon voting. The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, led
by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, recommended last
August that all states let former felons vote. The change was not,
however, included in the election-reform bill passed by the House last
month. Opponents argue that convicted felons simply surrender their right
to elect their leaders. "People have to have a certain level of
trustworthiness and loyalty to be allowed to vote," says Roger
Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a
conservative research group. "It makes sense that somebody who has
been convicted of a serious crime does not have that loyalty and
But for former criminals to construct new lives, Johnson insists, it's
essential that they feel part of the citizenry, with its privileges and
responsibilities. A trial is set in U.S. District Court for the Southern
District of Florida for March 18.