Saturday, February 16, 2008

Voting rights, or lack thereof, in this country


Voting rights, or lack thereof, in this country
By: Galen Kusic

Posted: 2/15/08

With an election of great magnitude quickly approaching, it is unfortunate the right to vote is not always a choice that all Americans have.

Ex-felons throughout the country struggle and share different obstacles in the process to register and regain their voting rights. There are still two states, Kentucky and Virginia, that do not allow ex-felons to vote -- ever again in their lifetime.

Florida, along with other southern state, passed a law in 1968 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement to not allow ex-felons to ever vote again in that state. This was targeted at predominantly African Americans and Latinos, because there was and is such an unequally high number of minorities convicted and prosecuted for felonies nationwide.

In 2000, this law continued to show its constitutional flaws when Bush won the presidential election by a mere few hundred votes. Of the 950,000 disenfranchised voters in Florida at the time, how many do you think would have voted for Bush, or better yet, Gore? More than a few hundred, that is for certain.

The law was still in effect up until Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Grist signed a bill in April of 2007 that restored most ex-felons' right to vote. The law doesn't grant that right to all ex-felons, and there are stipulations and hearings that must be completed before voting rights are reinstated. It is not at all easy for these previously disenfranchised voters to get their rights back.

In other words, there are still roadblocks for many ex-felons to overcome before they can get a chance to vote and transition back into being productive members of society. In a recent study, it showed that ex-felons back in society and registered to vote re-offend significantly less.

This voting rights issue is personally relevant to me because as an ex-felon, my voting rights were not reinstated until January 1 of this year. In California, a felon must complete their sentence and three years parole before being able to vote again. I did both, and now have the opportunity to vote in what I feel is the most important election of my lifetime.

The process is slow, but other states like Nebraska, Texas and now Florida loosened restrictions in recent years on voting rights for ex-felons. Hopefully this will put some pressure on Virginia and Kentucky to follow suit and reinstate these essential rights to deserving United States citizens.

On the other end of the spectrum, only two states allow incarcerated felons to vote while in prison. Those are Maine and Vermont. If inmates in prison are still counted on the census for population, why can't they vote as citizens of the United States?

That sort of change might be a little far off in the future, but at least for now, all states should allow ex-felons the right to vote after serving their time in prison. Only eight states allow ex-felons to vote after immediately completing their sentence. That leaves 40 states in which parole or probation must be completed, and a handful more that require some kind of additional grace period.

Prison is meant as a form of rehabilitation and a way for people to pay their debt to society. Constitutionally, it is not meant to be a sentence stripping a true citizen of the right to vote.

The sad thing is a lot of ex-felons don't think they have the right to vote. It was even news to me that I would be able to vote once I was off parole. I thought I had to wait seven years, the same amount of time it takes ex-felons to own or purchase a firearm in California.

It was a relief to hear that I would be able to vote again. For the first time in my life I felt like my vote REALLY mattered and that I could make a difference. Imagine if all ex-felons were given the same hope?

But they're not. Instead, most are led to believe that their right to vote has been taken away, or the process to get it back is too extensive. This must change. If you are a citizen in this country, ex-con or not, the government should grant you the right to vote. Period.

This is where, for example, parole and probation in California have dropped the ball. Parole should give felons the proper forms and instructions to register to vote at the same time of that parolee's discharge from the system. This would give a substantial amount of ex-felons an outlet to register as voters and an opportunity to get involved.

How this disenfranchisement law in various states has gone untouched and unchanged for so long is beyond me. But at the same time I can see why. This government STILL does not want to give power to minorities. This government still doesn't want to give the poor a voice. And most of all, this government doesn't want to give ex-convicts a vote.

That is not the definition of democracy. That is fascism. This is what we supposedly fight wars against and try to protect other countries from by using military force. How can we continue to do this to other countries when we are one of the biggest proponents of torture and terror right here in our own prison and judicial system?

Two percent of the U.S. population is in prison, the highest percentage in the world. In California, 67 percent of the inmate population is African American or Latino. And as of right now nationally, 1.4 million black people do not have the right to vote because of backwards, Jim Crow voting laws.

It is the responsibility of ex-felons like myself to fight against these laws and promote change within the system. It is the responsibility of non-felons to educate themselves about voting rights and realize what a discriminatory and racist practice this is. Most of all, it is the responsibility of the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn these laws immediately for justice and equality for all citizens in this country.

Regardless of past mistakes, citizens in this country should be given a second chance to make things right. That's all I ask for, but this country doesn't want to make that possible. Instead, the prison industrial complex rolls on full steam to feed the need of cheap labor, modern day slavery, greedy corporations and oppression.

So for those that might stop and think, voting is always our choice as citizens…it really isn't. It is a privilege that can be taken away and, to some in this country, never given back. That must change, or our whole democratic system is really nothing but a hoax.

Galen Kusic can be reached at gkusic@statehornet.com

1 comment:

jcaron61 said...

In Connecticut there is a process called a non-inmate pardon where if one is eligible and have made som significant changes they can apply to get their crimonal history erased. This should be national. For more info about the process go www.connecticutpardonteam.org