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Voter lockdown.

Debate on the Hill surrounds voting rights for former felons

Nathaniel Mathes seemed like your typical 20-year-old to most observers in 1987. He had recently graduated from Toledo High School in Ohio with a 3.2 grade point average and was in the top 20 of his graduating class. He received a scholarship from the University of Toledo and was coaching high school wrestling to earn some extra money.

But in 1988 he was convicted on federal charges of attempting to sell cocaine. So instead of pursuing his dreams on a college campus, his only claim to fame for the next several years would be that he was in prison with discredited PTL preacher Jim Bakker.

Today, Mathes is out on parole and working as a small business representative for MCI Communications. He's working to restore his family life and actually believes he's a better person now than before his incarceration. But there is one thing keeping Mathes from participating fully in society--like most former convicts, Mathes is barred from the voting booth.

"We've made the transition by rehabilitating ourselves for our families," says Mathes. "Getting the right to vote again would enable us to take advantage of the opportunity to make our voices heard."

With that in mind, Michigan Rep. John Conyers recently introduced the Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act of 1999, aimed at restoring voting rights to ex-offenders. The legislation would have wide-ranging impact because, as a matter of course, the vast majority of states deny voting rights to those with criminal records.

Why should this matter to readers of BLACK ENTERPRISE? Well, unfortunately, this translates into approximately 1.4 million otherwise eligible African Americans barred from the voting booths long after they've served their time and been released.

Forty-seven of the 50 states prohibit former convicts from voting in some measure. Only Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont have no restrictions on the voting rights of ex-convicts. Thirty-two states prohibit offenders on parole from voting, 29 states prohibit people on probation from voting and 14 states disqualify offenders for life even after their sentences have been served.

"States put conditions on whether a person can vote again even after they have paid their dues," says Conyers. "At a time when our nation faces record low voter participation, this legislation represents a historic means of both expanding voting rights while helping to reintegrate former felons into our society."

In an Action Alert distributed by the NAACP, President and CEO Kweisi Mfume laid out his case for why the NAACP decided to back the proposed legislation. "The war on drugs has had a disproportionate impact on African Americans. Between 1985 and 1995, there was a 707% increase in the number of African Americans in state prisons for a drug offense, compared to a 306% increase for whites over the same period," Mfume says. "Thus, African Americans are disproportionately losing their right to vote even after they've paid their debt to society. Because voting is such an integral part of being a member of society, the NAACP has worked closely with like-minded groups to develop legislation to allow felons who are no longer incarcerated to vote in federal elections."

The issue also caught the attention of California Rep. Maxine Waters, who co-sponsored the legislation with Conyers. "What we have done is exclude the right for many individuals who have paid the price, who did the time and are now good citizens but can't vote," she says.

Conyers says that while he believes there is a strong need for the legislation, he admits he's facing an uphill battle even getting the legislation to the floor for a vote. Says the Democrat, "Right now, in a Republican Congress, this is a difficult measure, and we are not sure that we can even get it on the calendar." Greg Moore, chief of staff for Conyers says, however, "We have some expectation that there will be a hearing in the fall."

While this bill is unlikely to get out of Congress this year, some ex-offenders like Mathes make a compelling case that someone convicted of a crime deserves a second chance.

"I found God again in prison," says Mathes. "I think if a bill was passed, a lot of individuals who have learned from their mistakes could benefit. You have some bad seeds, but you have a lot of individuals who have learned from their mistakes."
COPYRIGHT 1999 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:restoring voting rights to ex-offenders
Author:Harris, Hamil R.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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