Should N.Y. Felons Vote? Yes

February 13, 2005 | New York Daily News |

This month, the New York City Bar Association took up the cause of inmate Anthony Bottom, making an argument to the court that a state law banning felons from voting should be overturned because it violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The historical trend of democracy in America has bent toward total inclusion of its citizens in the electoral process. Only one group of citizens continues to be denied the right to vote — 4.65 million American citizens (of which 1.4 million are African-American males) who have been convicted of violating the law. As a former prisoner now on parole, I am one of that group, despite the fact that I work, pay taxes, obey the law and take care of my family. I am indistinguishable from any other citizen you see on the streets, in the workplace or at the supermarket, but I cannot vote for those who make the critical decisions about my life, my family or my community.

The same mind-set that denied the women of this country the right to vote for 144 years is still around. It's time for our state legislators to follow the lead of states like Maine and Vermont, where prisoners can vote from their jail cells. It's time for politicians to represent all their constituents and repeal these laws.

The right to vote has nothing to do with criminal justice; it is neither part of the criminal sentence nor does it serve any legitimate goal of punishment or public safety. Everywhere you go in this city, whether encountering busboys or Ph.D.s, former prisoners are serving you, leading you in prayer, organizing you and even protecting you. They are citizens, family members, church members and human beings just like you. It is time for change. Voting is a right, not a privilege. To quote Earl Warren, former chief justice of the United States: "Citizenship is not a license that expires upon misbehavior. ... And deprivation of citizenship is not a weapon that the government may use to express its displeasure at a citizen's conduct, however reprehensible that conduct may be."

Hayden, campaign director for Demos, a civic research group, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging felon disenfranchisement laws in New York.

 

The right to vote has nothing to do with criminal justice; it is neither part of the criminal sentence nor does it serve any legitimate goal of punishment or public safety.