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Advocates See Progress in Rolling Back Laws Prohibiting Felons From Voting

NEW YORK -- With a victory in Iowa last month and appeals arguments in federal court, advocates for restoring felons' right to vote say they are making progress in rolling back laws that disproportionately affect blacks and other minorities.

``Felony disenfranchisement laws are the last vestiges of Jim Crow,'' said Catherine Weiss, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, who is working on the issue. ``They disenfranchise African Americans way out of proportion to their numbers in the population.''
As of 2000, almost 5 million Americans couldn't vote because of laws that restrict those convicted of a felony from casting ballots -- in some cases even after their sentences and parole are complete, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that favors alternatives to prison. Four in 10 of those disenfranchised were black.

Yet advocates are now celebrating developments such as Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's recent announcement that he plans to reverse his state's lifetime ban on felon voting.

The full 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York was scheduled to hear arguments in cases brought by two prisoners -- one now freed -- who say that the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removed barriers to black voters, can be used to argue that the felony laws are unfair.

``If there's such a thing as a political animal [enthusiast], I am it ... (but) come Election Day, I can't vote,'' said Joseph ``Jazz'' Hayden, who served 14 years in prison for manslaughter and filed one of the cases in 2000.

Forty-eight states restrict voting rights for felons while they are behind bars or serving parole or probation, according to the Sentencing Project. Four states -- Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia -- ban voting for life, the groups says.

Some argue that such restrictions are justified.

``If you're not willing to follow the law, then you can't claim a right to make the law for other people,'' said Roger Clegg, vice president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington think tank. ``When you vote, that's what you're doing.''

Massachusetts voters agreed, and in 2000, barred prisoners from voting. (Those on parole and probation can still cast ballots.)

Though a few other states have further restricted felons from voting in recent years, more have moved in the opposite direction.

In 2001, New Mexico lifted a lifetime ban, and Nebraska followed suit in March. In several states, felons can now apply to have their voting rights restored. Such waivers had become commonplace in Iowa, where Vilsack said he would sign an executive order allowing those who complete their sentences and parole to vote.

In recent years, Florida has made it easier for felons to have their voting rights restored, and in the 12 months ending last June 30, nearly 56,000 prisoners regained voting rights, according to Jane Tillman of the state's parole commission.

Gov. Jeb Bush ``believes we have a fair and good clemency system in place for the restoration of civil rights, including voting,'' said spokeswoman Alia Faraj.

The issue of disenfranchisement escalated in Florida after the 2000 presidential election, which was decided by fewer than 600 votes there. With more than 820,000 felons who could not vote as of 2000, according to the Sentencing Project, Florida has the largest disenfranchised population of any state.

After the election, ``whether you were on one side or another, it was pretty eye-opening just how delicate the situation is,'' said Monifa Bandele, field director for Right to Vote, a coalition of national groups.

Also driving efforts to roll back disenfranchisement laws is the nation's swelling prison population. Though crime rates have fallen, the prison population soared to 2.1 million by June 2004, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Justice Department. In 1970, that number was about 200,000.

``If you talked about this 10 years ago, it would have dropped to the bottom of the well without so much as a ripple,'' said Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, who will present arguments in the New York cases. ``As the numbers (of prisoners) have grown, more awareness of the effects of it -- the injustice of it -- has also grown.''

With 13 percent of all black men barred from voting because of disenfranchisement laws, advocates say, many have become disengaged. They note felons also face prohibitions in other areas of life, such as living in public housing, obtaining identification cards and getting student loans.

``This marginalizes people,'' said Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association. ``If they can't participate politically, they tend to care less and less about other things that go along with voting.''
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