By Madelyn Colon
CTLatinoNews.com Political Columnist
Across the country, 5.85 million Americans are legally forbidden to vote because they have committed felonies and 4.7 million are excluded from voting due to state laws that place onerous restrictions on giving them their voting rights back after their release from prison. Even those who have committed only misdemeanors are often led to believe they have lost their right to vote.
In Connecticut, although ex-felons have had the right to vote since 1975, there is still a misperception by the public in general and most importantly by the ex-felons themselves that they don’t have that right anymore, so they don’t re-register to vote. This has led to concerns that not providing them with correct information after they’ve paid their debt may deliberately exclude members of particular groups from participating in the political system.
You see, the largest percentages of felons are from the state’s largest cities where higher numbers of residents are Latino and African American. According to a Felon Database maintained by the Connecticut Secretary of the State, nearly 20,000 felons who were previously registered to vote are off the voting rolls because of their felony status. Some may still be serving their sentences, but while exact numbers are not known, thousands of other potential ex-felon voters have been released and are now productive members of society, working and paying taxes. The cities with highest representation of felons on this database happen to be from Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury.
Two leading state legislators, state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven and state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, are concerned enough about this possible exclusion that they have put their muscle behind a bill (SB 774) that would obligate the state to provide former felons with consistent information on restoring their voter rights. The legislature previously weakened a requirement in 2001 that required the Commissioner of Correction, Judicial Department, Board of Parole and local Registrars of Voter to inform former felons of their voting right.
Senator Harper says, “There is a lot of misinformation out there about this. We want to make voter re-registration information consistent across the system so that everyone is given the same information when they are released. This will ensure these individuals can become fully invested as citizens again” Also backing the bill is state Rep. Matt Lesser (D-Middletown) who says informing ex-felons of their rights will “make sure that certain communities are not permanently affected by poor choices they made in the past; we want to make as many voices heard as possible in our elections.”
Despite this, Connecticut is actually ahead of the curve compared to many others on this issue. Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa permanently revoke the ability of former felons to vote again and many states require that former felons receive a formal pardon by the governor or a clemency board. In Kentucky, former felons must individually petition the state legislature for restoration of their rights.
Questions about barring ex-felons from voting have been raised for years. Before she was a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor spoke out against the disqualification of former felons who want to vote in a 2006 U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Sotomayor challenged New York voting laws and argued that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) applied to “all qualifications” and that the law there “disqualifies a group of people from voting “and therefore, felon disenfranchisement was a violation of the VRA.
Civil rights advocacy groups have also voiced concern regarding the arduous requirements imposed on former felons who want to vote again in many states. Among them The Brennan Center for Social Justice and The Sentencing Project, which have begun monitoring states on this issue.
One extreme case of what might appear to be voter disenfranchisement is taking place in Florida. The year before the 2012 Presidential elections, Republican Gov. Rick Scott successfully instituted a five-year-waiting period before ex-felons could even file a petition to regain their voting rights. As a result, there is a backlog of 30,000 petitions still pending before the Florida Clemency Board: 30,000 possible voters whose voices were muted in an important election.
MALDEF, a national Latino civil rights advocacy group, has also studied how this issue specifically affects the Latino community in 10 states. MALDEF reported that a significant number of Latinos are prohibited from voting by the states’ laws and that Latinos have higher rates of disenfranchisement compared to their peers in the voting age population.
Manipulating voting laws to deliberately exclude a group of people from participating in the political system might sound like a conspiracy theory to some, but across the nation and here in Connecticut the issue should be carefully scrutinized – lest we unintentionally penalize some of our citizens twice.
By Madelyn Colon