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Felons, free or incarcerated, have no vote

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — When asked about his favorite candidate in this year’s presidential race, 31-year-old Steven Hubbard didn’t hesitate to say, “Obama’s my man.”

That’s where his political voice ends. Hubbard, a convicted felon from Tupelo, is one of nearly 150,000 inmates and convicted felons in Mississippi who’ve lost their right to vote, nearly 7 percent of the state’s adult population.

Even though he doesn’t deny guilt for the forgery conviction that caused him to lose his right to vote, Hubbard said stripping him of his right to vote while he was in prison was un-American.

“I committed a crime and I paid my debt to society for that crime by serving time in prison,” said Hubbard. “But when I was released, my punishment didn’t end. Being stripped of the right to vote is not fair to convicted felons who pay their debt to society and serve the time given to them by the courts. It’s almost like I was exiled from the country. If I can’t vote, then I can’t be an American, right?”

Mississippi has a procedure that would allow Hubbard to have his rights restored. But with the presidential election less than six months away, some people have begun to wonder about the effect of having so many voting-age Americans disenfranchised, particularly black voters.

According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice organization engaged in research and advocacy, 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated on felony offenses. Only Maine and Vermont permit these inmates to vote. Thirty-five states prohibit felons from voting while they are on parole.

Of the 5 million disenfranchised felons, 1.4 million are black men — 13 percent of the U.S. black male population. More than 2 million whites and Hispanics are disenfranchised for committing crimes.

“Black voters are disproportionately affected by disenfranchisement policies,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the national organization the Sentencing Project. “The racial disproportions in the criminal justice system translate into higher rates of disenfranchisement for African-Americans.

“But black communities as a whole are affected by these policies since they have relatively fewer voters than other communities, and therefore their community interests receive less representation.”

Mauer said even though some 5 million people are disenfranchised in the United States because they are felons, it’s hard to say how that affects voting. Regardless, Mauer said their vote loss is not fair.

“It’s difficult to say how elections would be affected if these felons were allowed to vote because we can’t necessarily predict how many would vote and who they would vote for.

“But we believe this issue should be decided on the basis of principle, not voting patterns. That is similar to women and African-Americans gaining the right to vote, it was the right thing to do regardless of voting patterns,” Mauer said.

Not everyone shares Mauer’s viewpoint. Roger Clegg, director of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Virginia and longtime proponent of not letting felons vote, disagrees.

“You don’t have a right to make the laws if you aren’t willing to follow them yourself,” said Clegg. “To participate in self-government, you must be willing to accept the rule of law.

“We don’t let everyone vote — not children, not non-citizens, not the mentally incompetent. There are certain minimum and objective standards of trustworthiness, loyalty and responsibility, and those who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens don’t meet those standards.”

Even after a felon has served his or her time and “paid their debt to society,” Clegg said voting still shouldn’t be an automatic right.

“Felons who have served their prison time have paid enough of their debt to be allowed out of prison, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t continuing consequences. We don’t let felons possess firearms or serve on juries, for instance.

“By the way, most of the groups that want felons to be able to vote want them to be able to vote when they are still in prison, so this paid their debt to society’ argument is a red herring,” Clegg said.

The good news for Hubbard and others in his position is most voting bans aren’t permanent.

In Mississippi, after completion of a sentence, an individual must go to his or her legislator and persuade the lawmaker to author a bill re-enfranchising that individual. Both houses of the Legislature must then pass the bill, and the governor must sign it.

Each year about 10-12 people are re-enfranchised in Mississippi. It isn’t automatic — some bills are rejected. All felons stripped of voting rights must go through this procedure to have them restored.

Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, is chairman of the Judiciary B committee which considers the suffrage bills. Tollison said he didn’t present a suffrage bill this past session to the full Senate, and at least three were submitted.

“Once a person completes their sentence and pays all fines owed, they can start the process of regaining voting rights,” said Tollison. “We usually like them to wait at least a year before we consider granting their right to vote.”

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann pushed a bill that would re-enfranchise most felons who lose their voting rights under state law, according to the Sentencing Project. With the exception of those convicted of rape and murder, Hosemann’s proposal would allow convicted felons to have their voting rights restored two years after serving their sentence, including probation.

The bill died.

Hubbard said he plans to go through the proper procedures to get his voting rights restored, but still feels stripping them was not the right thing to do in the first place.

“I know what I did was wrong and like I said, I paid for it,” said Hubbard. “I just want the simple rights that every other free American has and voting is one of those rights. I don’t think that’s asking for too much.”

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