Barred from the Ballot
BY AMANDA RIPLEY

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 ballot.

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.


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Correctional Association of New York
Private, non-profit criminal justice policy and advocacy organization
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Official site of the American Civil Liberties Union
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Official U.S. Department of Justice site

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 trustworthiness."

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.

 


 

 

 

 

 

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