Restoring Voting Rights for People with Felony Convictions Is Essential to Reparations

The most critical reparation issue is certainly financial, but I have been working this legislative session on the restoration of voting rights for those with felony convictions here in Washington state. Although we decided not to explicitly include restoration language in our testimony, disenfranchisement is clearly a reparation issue.

The theft of suffrage, primarily as a racist policy, has been a disempowering theft of political, economic and personal agency for individuals and whole communities of color. When possible we need to add the restoration of voting rights for those with felony convictions to our advocacy for reparations.

Maine and Vermont law provides for full suffrage for those with felony convictions, even while still incarcerated. Other states have varying levels of restored suffrage. All states need to provide full suffrage as a matter of fairness/anti-racism/restoration/reparation.

Below is my testimony in support of S.B. 5076 on Felon Voting Rights, delivered on January 30, 2019 before the Washington State Senate Government Committee.

Sen. Hunt, members of the State Government Committee,

My name is Tom Ewell. I live in Clinton on Whidbey Island, and I am a member of Quaker Voice on Washington Public Policy.

For much of my professional career I served as Executive Director of the Maine Council of Churches that largely focused on criminal justice issues. Maine is one of the states with full voting rights for anyone convicted of a felony. When I moved to Washington twelve years ago I began a process of educating myself about the status of voting rights for people with felony convictions in Washington with a commitment to work toward expanding those rights here, and I am pleased to enthusiastically support the bill before us this morning. I want simply to say that based on my experience in Maine, voting rights for persons with a felony is a welcome and successful effort of citizen engagement and the reintegration of the previously imprisoned back into society.

My study of the suppression of voting rights for people with felony convictions has led to the stark conclusion that the policy is solidly based in historical racism, a policy that began in the South following Reconstruction that eventually spread throughout the entire nation. The thirteenth amendment provided emancipation of slaves and, for the males at least, provision for their voting rights as full citizens of our nation. But the thirteenth amendment also included a provision that a felony conviction would result in the loss of the right to vote. Various laws were thus written and enforced that were expressly designed to apply to the newly emancipated slaves that resulted in mass disenfranchisement. The felony voting suppression laws were expanded during the Jim Crow era to include a web of voter suppression laws to assure that African-Americans were denied the right to vote and robbed of the opportunity to contribute to democratic engagement regarding the well-being of their communities and personal lives. Various forms of racially based voter suppression continue today as we have observed during the November elections.

SB 5076 is our current opportunity in Washington to change these racially based policies that result in voter suppression. To me it is simply a matter of fairness and justice that suffrage be provided to persons with a felony conviction, all of whom are American citizens, and many of whom are taxpayers and veterans who served in the armed services to protect our democracy and the right to vote.

When persons are imprisoned they lose their liberty and are separated from their communities. When released they are expected to lead productive and successful lives. Depriving the formerly imprisoned of voting rights, however, acts at cross-purposes with that expectation because it serves an entirely punitive purpose – it accomplishes nothing to get a person back on the right path. The act of voting, however, is consistent with the expectation of a successful reintegration back into society because it is a symbol of a released individual’s investment in communities and the country, and at the same time a symbol of society’s support for that reintegration. This is precisely the attitude we want our formerly imprisoned citizens to embrace.

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