Too many felons have lost the right to vote


Last fall Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pardoned Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide and convicted Watergate felon, thereby restoring Colson’s full civil and voting rights. I urge Gov. Gary Locke to begin his second term in the same spirit of reconciliation, but to go farther and pardon and restore the civil and voting rights of first time felons in Washington state who have completed their paroles and rejoined society.

A pardon would complete their re-entry to society restoring full citizenship and resumption of a normal life in their communities.

Those who have committed crimes and finished their sentences should be given a chance and a voice in society once more. They should not be kept out of the civic process forever and denied their constitutional right to vote.

Voting is one of the most important rights of a citizen. Imprisonment does not take away citizenship. Prison only suspends its full practice.

Across America, for example, there are more than 3.9 million Americans – 1 in 50 adults — not allowed to vote because of a felony conviction. Thirty-two states bar felons from voting while on parole or probation, while 13 states bar them from voting for life.

According to a 1999 report, "Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States," issued by the Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, 13 percent of the black males in the United States have had their right to vote taken away because of felony convictions.

Many of the states where blacks are barred from voting for life are states where blacks have large populations, such as Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia. These laws began in the post-Civil War era when white politicians were designing ways to minimize black voting power.

While figures are not readily available for Asian, Hispanic and white felons, it is known that the prison population for these groups is growing rapidly. They are denied the right to vote, too.

While few have the political connections of Chuck Colson to secure a pardon, their right to vote again is no less important and deserves Gov. Locke’s attention.

In the 13 states that bar one-time felons from voting for life, felons are permanently denied the right to vote unless they receive a governor’s pardon, a pardon by a parole board or local election commission. In Washington a felon can petition the courts for restoration of his or her civil rights or receive an executive pardon after recommendation of the Clemency and Pardons Board.

There is precedent in American history for pardoning and restoring citizenship rights. Lee’s defeated Confederate army at Appomattox was pardoned. Its members were welcomed back into the Union and sent home as Americans, not traitors. During the Vietnam War many young men left the United States for Canada. America has pardoned and restored their civil rights without exception. Why shouldn’t we do the same and unconditionally for first time felons of all races who have paid society’s price and returned to their families?

What and whose purpose is served by denying the right to vote? If the purpose of prison release is to allow people a second chance and the opportunity to return to their communities and again become productive citizens, it is very shortsighted to bar them from voting for life.

It is indefensible to permanently deny a first time felon the right to vote. By doing so we create an outlaw caste of Americans who are citizens in name only. Gov. Locke, if you still have doubts, I remind you of the prodigal son.

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