Just before the March 1 election, I was campaigning in the Capitol View neighborhood encouraging support for the ill-fated Pulaski County transit tax. I asked one man out building a fence whether he planned to vote. His response: "I can't because I was a felon." The interaction with this man working hard on a Sunday afternoon nagged at me despite a great afternoon of canvassing with numerous positive interactions with voters, many of them old friends.
Late last week, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order to create an opportunity for 200,000 former felons in his state to regain the vote. While there have been moves to lessen the impact of felon disenfranchisement in a number of states in recent years, McAuliffe's move was unusual in that it was a blanket restoration of voting rights to all former felons who had completed their sentences and was carried out through the pen of a governor rather than legislative action. McAuliffe's action was carefully crafted to work within the constraints of a 1902 state constitutional amendment that disenfranchised felons, and he also promised to issue monthly orders to allow newly released felons to register to vote. As Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project (a national organization dedicated to creating a more just criminal justice system across the states), put it, "This will be the single most significant action on disenfranchisement that we've ever seen from a governor."
While not as severe as the situation in Virginia (where ex-felons have to wait for years to ask a judge for reinstatement to the voting rolls), Arkansas removes inmates, parolees or probationers from the voting rolls. To regain one's right to vote, a former felon must take proof of being discharged from the criminal justice system along with evidence of the payment of all fees, fines and restitution to the county clerk. If the ex-felon lacks any of these various documents, he has to seek them out from corrections officials; over time, it becomes more likely that key records will be lost. Moreover, the documents differ according to where the felon was in the corrections system. At the end of the day, local county clerks end up with significant power in this arena; over time, some have been more lax and others more stringent as they scrutinize the papers required to allow an ex-felon to regain his or her voting rights.
According to The Sentencing Project, approximately 65,000 of Arkansas's residents were disenfranchised as of 2010. That equals just under 3 percent of the entire voting age population. But, unsurprisingly, there is a disparate racial impact of Arkansas's felon disfranchisement laws. Just under 8 percent of the African-American voting age population in the state is shut out by the disenfranchising measures, and among African-American men the rate jumps into double digits. Indeed, during my own campaign for state legislature a few years back, the response, "I can't vote because I was incarcerated" became so common a response from African-American men of all ages whom I met going door-to-door that I found myself hesitant to ask the question regarding their registration status because of the inherent awkwardness in the conversation that too often followed.
Unfortunately, because the disenfranchisement of felons (and the convoluted process through which voting rights can be regained) is enshrined in the hyperspecific Amendment 51 to the Arkansas Constitution, ratified by the state's voters in 1964, any action as sweeping as McAuliffe's will be difficult in Arkansas (even in an altered partisan environment). However, absent fundamental reform to the system that should ultimately come, actions could reduce the state's disenfranchisement rate: The various data required for re-entry to the voting rolls could be streamlined into a unified electronic database easing the process for ex-felons and creating uniformity across counties, and ex-felons could be educated about regaining their vote and be assisted in that process as they depart the criminal justice system.
From providing felons a "second chance" in employment to ensuring access to high-quality housing, there are many issues tied to the reintegration of those who have completed their debts to society back into that society. But, there's nothing more fundamental than the steps that should be taken to provide ex-felons a "second chance" at citizenship's core component: the right to vote.