Politicians, including and , religious leaders and civil rights activists, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton, gathered to honor the struggle for voting rights in Alabama at events marking the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
I am comforted by the important gains made by African Americans over the past 40 years, but reminded that the dream of equality Rev. , Jr. imagined is yet to be realized.
On March 7, 1965, marchers seeking voting rights for disenfranchised blacks in the South were beaten by police officers who wanted to stop the Selma to Montgomery protest. The tragic event mobilized broad support for the elimination of racist policies that created obstacles to African-American voting, and helped trigger the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The law was a vital step towards achieving the fundamental democratic principal of universal suffrage.
Despite the historic change, millions of Americans are still excluded from the polls because of restrictive felony voting laws that reflect the dramatic growth of the prison system in recent decades. At the time the Voting Rights Act was implemented, 1.5 million Americans could not vote because of a felony record. Today, more than 5.3 million people are disenfranchised nationally. This rise in the number of disenfranchised adults is an unfortunate reminder that the fight for voting rights goes on.
has the third highest disenfranchisement rate in the nation because its constitution imposes a lifetime ban on voting for people with certain felony convictions, and as a result nearly a quarter-million of our citizens cannot vote. Alabama is one of only 12 states to permanently bar some citizens from voting even after the completion of their full sentence. Of those disenfranchised in Alabama , nearly 90 percent have been released from prison, and live and work in the community.
Among African-Americans in , the rate of disenfranchisement is particularly stark. One of every seven African-American adults in Alabama is disenfranchised, a rate nearly twice the national average. Because Alabama imprisons African-Americans at a rate nearly four times that of whites, the racial influences that impact Alabama's criminal justice system contribute to African-Americans' high rates of disenfranchisement.
The result is that black communities have a diminished political voice. Even people without convictions lose political clout because the concerns of the community are not equally represented at the polls.
Since 1997, 16 states have taken steps to reform disenfranchisement laws, resulting in more than 600,000 people regaining the right to vote. Four years ago, the Alabama Legislature sought to improve its voter restoration process as well, by restoring voting rights to eligible people within 50 days of submitting an application.
It was a move in the right direction, but the bureaucratic confusion and inefficiency that arose has illegally denied voting rights to thousands of Alabama citizens. A voter restoration system that applies automatically after release from prison would ease the administrative burdens that delay restoration.
This is in sharp contrast to Attorney General Troy King's recent proposal to make Alabama 's voter system even more backward by requiring all citizens with felony convictions to apply through the bureaucratic restoration process.
The men and women who have redeemed themselves by serving their time in prison should be embraced and welcomed home. Restoring their right to vote is a crucial part of giving them a second chance. As a person who has been previously incarcerated, I know that voting connects you to your community by building responsibility for your neighbors and advancing common goals of democracy. Research has also shown that former offenders who vote are less likely to be rearrested than non-voters.
As we commemorate our advancements, I hope our country's leaders do not forget that the struggle for democracy continues for more than 5 million Americans who cannot vote because of past mistakes. The effort to expand voting rights to people with felony convictions is the new frontier of the civil rights movement. I hope those who marked this anniversary will join it.