Saturday, October 4, 2008

Know/are a felon in MA? You can VOTE! Spread the word

"Hey, would you like to vote so you can participate in this historic election?"

A pause.

"Well, I'd like to, but I can't-- I'm a convicted felon."

Many felons in Massachusetts think they've permanently lost the right to vote and much of that misconception was created in the year 2000, when a successful ballot question removed the right to vote for convicted felons while they were serving their time. But as soon as a person is released, his or her right to vote is restored.

In fact, more than half of the prisoners in Massachusetts county jail are still eligible to register and to vote, because more than half of them are pre-trial-- not yet found guilty of any crime-- and a number of those who have been sentenced are serving time for a misdemeanor. All of those prisoners are eligible to vote.

More than four years ago, Holly Richardson and I, representing Arise for Social Justice, met with Hampden County Sheriff Mike Ashe and some of his program staff. We were there to speak against the construction of a new women's jail, even though we knew it was nearly unstoppable. One of the points were were there to make was that no real shortage in women's beds really existed if the pre-trial population could be reduced-- either through lighter bails or released on their own recognisance. While we were there, we asked if the county jail made any effort to get those who were eligible registered to vote and assist them to get absentee ballots. They did not, but agreed to consider "making that option available."

I am happy to report that although the administrators don't exactly run a campaign, they do make information available to prisoners about their right to register and vote. I put in a call to the program director at the Hampshire County jail, and they were happy to be provided with voter registration and absentee ballot forms. Unfortunately, I doubt most county jails are proactive unless pushed.

After years of state by state felony disenfranchisement, the tide may finally be turning to restore voting rights. According to the Sentencing Project, in the last ten years,
  • Nine states either repealed or amended lifetime disenfranchisement laws
  • Two states expanded voting rights to persons under community supervision
  • Five states eased the restoration process for persons seeking to have their right to vote restored after completing their sentence
  • Three states improved data and information sharing.
Still, some five million people will be unable to vote in this year's Presidential election.

As well as having the highest number of incarcerated persons in the world, the U.S. also denies more people convicted of a crime the right to vote than any other democratic country. In some countries, the ballot box is even brought to the prison. In dozens of countries in Europe and the Americas, all 5.3 million disenfranchised felons would have the right to vote.

If you are personally affected by felony disenfranchisement laws, or know someone who is, don't assume you or your friend can't vote. Find out! With times the way they are, hang on to every bit of power we have. You can get a state by state guide to felony enfranchisement laws at the Sentencing Project.

The deadline to register to vote in Massachusetts is October 15.

AP Photo by Brennan Linsley

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