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The New Bill That Hopes to Restore Felons' Voting Rights

In 11 states it's still illegal for some felons to vote. A new bill seeks to end this madness.

Regardless of who you're rooting for in the impending GOP caucuses, or in the general election next November, most Americans can agree that the process we use to choose our leaders is important. America's voting system is not ideal—why must we vote on a weekday, for instance?—but it's what we've got for now, and exercising your rights at the polls is one of the last truly patriotic acts in an era when "patriotism" seems like a nebulous term.

Unfortunately, despite voting's role as a cornerstone of our democracy, draconian laws in 11 American states currently ban some or all felons from participating in that civic duty. Four states—Kentucky, Virginia, Florida, and Iowa—maintain lifetime voting bans for felons, while seven others bar certain felons (in Arizona, for instance, you can vote if you have one felony conviction, but only one). A new bill from Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) hopes to change all that.

Called the Democracy Restoration Act, Cardin's bill would reinstate voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences. "If we truly want to break the cycle of recidivism, we need to reintegrate former prisoners back into society," Cardin said in a press release last week. "When prisoners are released, they are expected to obey the law, get a job, and pay taxes as they are rehabilitated and reintegrated into their community. With these responsibilities and obligations of citizenship should also come the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote."

Stripping away millions of Americans' voting rights is shabby policy on its face, of course, but this widespread disenfranchisement is exacerbated by the fact that it's being done through the criminal justice system, a notoriously broken and racist machine. As ThinkProgress notes, of the more than 2 million disenfranchised felons in America today, a full 70 percent are black, and the vast majority are male. In essence, felony voting bans have become a great way to keep young black men out of polling places, often by design. And according to website the Straight Dope, "[S]tates with tough anti-felon laws tend to be located in the South, and "a lot of these laws were beefed up around the turn of the century to include crimes thought to be more commonly committed by blacks."

Felon disenfranchisement once again forces the United States to face what criminal justice means. If our goal is to rehabilitate criminals and make them contributing and flourishing members of society, then alienating them by taking away their voting rights is outright wrong. But if our goal is to punish criminals—both in prison and out—forever, then we're doing a pretty good job.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Casey Serin

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