Extending Democracy to Ex-Offenders

Published June 22nd 2005 in The New York Times

The laws that strip ex-offenders of the right to vote across the United States are the shame of the democratic world. Of an estimated five million Americans who were barred from voting in the last presidential election, a majority would have been able to vote if they had been citizens of countries like Britain, France, Germany or Australia. Many nations take the franchise so seriously that they arrange for people to cast ballots while being held in prison. In the United States, by contrast, inmates can vote only in two states, Maine and Vermont.

This distinctly American bias - which extends to jobs, housing and education - keeps even law- abiding ex-offenders confined to the margins of society, where they have a notoriously difficult time building successful lives. A few states, at least, are beginning to grasp this point. Some are reconsidering postprison sanctions, including laws that bar ex-offenders from the polls.

The Nebraska Legislature, for example, recently replaced a lifetime voting ban for convicted felons with a system in which ex-offenders would have their rights automatically returned after a two-year waiting period. Iowa, which also bars former prisoners from voting for life, took a similar step forward last week when Gov. Tom Vilsack announced his intention to sign an executive order that would restore voting rights to felons after they complete their sentence.

Governor Vilsack's decision is particularly important, given that Iowa has some of the most severe postprison sanctions in the country. The other four states with similar laws are in the South, where disenfranchisement was created about a century ago, partly to keep black Americans from exercising their right to vote.

The Iowa and Nebraska cases reflect a growing awareness in some of the states that these laws offend the basic principles of democracy. They also stigmatize millions of Americans, many of whom have paid their debts to society and want nothing more than to rejoin the mainstream. The more the United States embraces this view, the healthier we will be as a nation.