Congress eying felon vote laws

Support for easing restrictions has come from Democrats and Republicans.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Last November 39-year-old Kenny Glaskow, an ex-felon who is now an ordained minister, voted for the first time.
"I got my rights back," said Glaskow, who didn't care about voting until he was jailed for 10 years on theft and drug charges and lost that right. "I feel like I am more of a citizen and more of a contributing factor to the society now."
Nine states have changed their laws in the last few years to allow more felons to vote. This year, voting rights groups are pushing felon voting bills and court challenges in at least a dozen more, lobbying lawmakers and holding rallies and voter registration drives.
Bipartisan support
The issue also is gaining attention in Congress because of complaints of voter disenfranchisement in Ohio and elsewhere during the 2004 election.
Experts estimate that about 4.7 million people nationwide -- more than one-third of them black men -- are currently or permanently banned from voting because they were convicted of a serious crime. After two close presidential elections, that number is gaining significance.
"Our model suggests that the restrictive laws tend to benefit Republicans," said Christopher Uggen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, who has studied the history of these laws, many of which date to the 1800s. Some laws were enacted after the Civil War to restrict black influence; others came from good government reforms, Uggen said.
Support for easing felony voting restrictions has come from both parties. Many Democrats see it as an equal rights issue, while Republicans view felony voting as a key to prisoner rehabilitation, which already has increased support from President Bush and congressional Republicans.
'More than ... states' rights'
Thirty-five states prohibit felons from voting until they complete parole, with some requiring ex-offenders to apply for the right to vote after a waiting period. Seven states permanently ban felons from voting, and two states have no restrictions.
"You can move from state to state and your rights can completely change," said Rashad Robinson of the Right to Vote Campaign, a nonpartisan coalition of advocacy groups. "This is more than a states' rights issue, this is about whether or not you can vote for the president."
Advocates back state laws that would allow felons to vote once their time is served, although some call for dropping all restrictions.
In state legislatures, momentum from the last election has kept the spotlight on new and returning bills.
Maryland lifted a lifetime ban in 2002, allowing felons to vote three years after completing probation or parole. A new bill that would let them vote when they are released has strong support because it would close a loophole in the law. Currently, the state board of election cannot confirm whether a felon is eligible to vote without paying for a statewide database.
A bill proposed since 2001 has won near unanimous committee approval in the one-house legislature in Nebraska, a GOP stronghold. The measure would give felons the right to vote after completing parole or probation.
"I decided it was time that we updated our laws," said the sponsor, Sen. DiAnna Schimek, a Democrat. Residents in her Lincoln-area district had told her they couldn't vote unless they petitioned for the right from a parole board 10 years after finishing their sentence.
Alabama, which had barred felons from voting for life, changed its law in 2003 to allow offenders to apply to have their voting right restored.
After his release in 2000, Glaskow, of Dothan, Ala., started a faith-based community group called The Ordinary People Society, which has become an advocate for restoring voting rights to felons.
Standards of loyalty?
But opponents contend that the right should be given only to law-abiding citizens who meet the minimum criteria: They are of age, U.S. citizens and mentally competent.
"If you're not willing to follow the law, then you shouldn't claim the right to make the law for everyone else by voting," said Roger Clegg, vice president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.
Clegg, who has testified before Congress against felony voting, said allowing offenders to vote would dilute the weight of voting by law-abiding citizens.
"There are certain minimum standards of trustworthiness and loyalty that we require," he said.
Ohio lets offenders vote once they are released. But the Cincinnati-based Prison Reform Advocacy Center complained before the November election that some elections officials gave out inaccurate information about felon voting rights.
Some Democrats say misinformation in Ohio and other states, combined with restrictive laws, could have kept thousands from the polls last November. In Ohio, about 22,000 felons are released from prison each year, according to the prison system.
Bush secured his re-election thanks to 118,000 votes over Democrat John Kerry in the state.
They 'paid their debt'
Other Democrats insist that the issue is not about changing election outcomes but about making sure voting rights are the same for everyone.
"This is creating situations where substantial numbers of African-Americans are disqualified from voting," said Rep. Melvin L. Watt, D-N.C., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "Once a person has served their time and paid their debt to society, it's a matter of fairness that they should be given their rights back."
In Florida, where the difference between Bush and former Vice President Al Gore was 537 votes, offenders must apply for a pardon or seek the restoration of their civil rights through clemency. Florida's law barred about 600,000 people from voting in 2000.
Two prominent Republicans have called on Gov. Jeb Bush to support restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Sen. Stephen Wise, chairman of the criminal-justice committee, and Senate Majority Leader Alex Villalobos, a former prosecutor, want the issue put to voters if necessary.
Speeding up the process
While Bush has resisted changing state law, he has made administrative modifications to simplify and speed up the process for felons to apply to get their voting rights back.
In Washington, the furor over the last election has led the House Administration Committee to plan hearings on election issues. At the request of the committee's Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus, it will devote one hearing to felony voting.
But committee Chairman Bob Ney, R-Ohio, said he's wary of creating a national standard for when felons can vote because it would infringe on states' rights and be complicated to enact.
"We've got to be careful that we don't micromanage every single standard of elections," Ney said.