On March 18, 2015, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) joins a broad and diverse coalition of civil rights, criminal justice, and other advocacy organizations in supporting the Democracy Restoration Act of 2015. Members of Congress, led by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI-13), introduced the bill, which would restore the right to vote in federal elections to persons with criminal records who have been released from incarceration and are living in our communities. Given the renewed attention to the sacrifices of so many to gain the right to vote, commemorated most recently by the 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, LDF urges Congress to restore the opportunity to vote in federal elections for persons released from prison.
According to the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section’s National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction, there are approximately 45,000 laws and regulations that prevent individuals with criminal records from fully participating in voting, employment, housing, and other opportunities that are needed to build successful lives after a criminal conviction. Opportunities to vote for people previously incarcerated have been shown to reduce recidivism. Nationwide, about 6 million American people with a prior criminal conviction are denied the right to vote—the fundamental right that is the foundation of all other rights.
The mass incarceration of communities of color means that the denial of voting rights to persons with criminal convictions disproportionately affects African American people. One in 13 African-American people cannot vote due to disfranchisement policies. A staggering 13% of all African-American males in the country are denied the right to vote due to criminal convictions. In Alabama alone—where the sacrifices of ordinary people gave birth to the Voting Rights Act—one in three African-American males has been disqualified from voting as a result of a conviction. Given current incarceration rates, one in three of the next of generation of African-American men will be denied the right to vote at some point in their lifetime.
For years, LDF has been a leading voice in the struggle to free the vote for people, particularly people of color, with criminal records. LDF has litigated several challenges to discriminatory state laws that disproportionately deny voting rights to people of color with criminal records, including in Alabama, New York, and Washington State.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already restored voting rights to previously incarcerated people upon release from prison. Still, the vast majority of states, 35, continue to restrict the voting rights of people who are no longer incarcerated. In 11 states, a conviction can result in a lifetime of permanent disfranchisement. Several states deny the right to vote to individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors. The Democracy Restoration Act is the appropriate response to the patchwork of state laws that deny access to the ballot box to millions of people with criminal convictions, who are disproportionately people of color.
The Democracy Restoration Act seeks to address disparities in state felon disfranchisement laws by enacting a nationwide standard for the restoration of voting rights in federal elections to persons who were previously incarcerated and are now reintegrated into society. Importantly, the bill ensures that individuals with criminal records know of their right to vote by requiring states and the federal government to provide to them with written notification of their right to register and vote in federal elections.
LDF strongly encourages Congress to pass the Democracy Restoration Act of 2015. Monique Dixon, Senior Policy Counsel of LDF’s Washington office, stated: “There is bipartisan support for comprehensive criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill; passage of the Democracy Restoration Act would be a step toward eliminating an unnecessary collateral consequence of a criminal conviction.” Leah Aden, LDF Assistant Counsel, continued, “Indeed, the unfortunate reality is that disfranchisement laws, which took root in the era of slavery and Jim Crow to limit the participation of people of color in the political process, continue today to disproportionately impact people of color by denying them access to the ballot even as they seek to rejoin our communities and work to contribute to them.” Leslie Proll, Director of LDF’s Washington office, stated: “As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, our nation should strive for full participation in our democracy. A key component is restoring the right to vote to those who have lost that fundamental right due to a criminal conviction.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is not a part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) although LDF was founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. Since 1957, LDF has been a completely separate organization. Please refer to us in media attributions as the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund or LDF.