The right to vote is a “civil right” that is protected by the United States Constitution and various federal laws. Also known as “civil liberties,” civil rights are those fundamental freedoms or privileges that are given to people by virtue of their citizenship. Some of the civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution are the freedoms of speech, religion, and the press, as well as the right to equality in public places or accommodations. The term “disenfranchisement” refers to the taking away of a person’s right to vote.
Felony voting disenfranchisement
In order to register to vote, a person must be a United States citizen, a resident in the city or political “jurisdiction” in which he or she will vote, and at least 18 years of age by the next election. Some states impose a further requirement that the person not be a convicted felon. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 includes a provision that allows states to “disenfranchise” or take away the voting privileges of persons who have been convicted of a felony. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution gives states the authority to decide whether or not to deny the right to vote to persons who have been convicted of a felonious offense. Accordingly, a convicted felon or an ex-felon may or may not be able to register to vote in his or her state of residence.
Only two states–Maine and Vermont–permit inmates who have been convicted of a felony to vote. The other 48 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws prohibiting such inmates from voting. Seven states do not permit ex-offenders who have completed their sentences to vote; some of these states permanently deny the right to vote to ex-offenders. Nearly three dozen states do not allow felons on probation or parole to vote.
In 2004, a state department of corrections was ordered by a court to assist ex-felons with the restoration of their voting rights. Civil rights advocates have contended that even in those states that permit ex-offenders to restore their voting rights, the requirements are too cumbersome.
Also in 2004, a civil rights organization filed a lawsuit challenging a state’s denial of voting rights to persons on probation or parole. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged that members of minority groups are “vastly over-represented” in the criminal justice system due, in part, to racial profiling. They contended that as a result, members of minority communities are effectively denied an equal opportunity to participate in the election process.
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