by Gitelle Seer, February 14, 2019
Voter suppression has been very much in the news, as state legislatures around the country either embrace or resist efforts to disenfranchise pesky parts of the population, i.e., those that don’t agree with the governing party’s policies.
Arizona is one of those states. On the one hand, we have our elected officials trying to limit access to the ballot box with specious arguments about voter fraud (sound familiar?). On the other hand, and here is the good news, several bills have been introduced in the Arizona state legislature to address the inequitable treatment of individuals who were convicted of felonies and have been released from prison or probation, but do not have the right to vote.
Arizona has a disenfranchised population of over 220,000, of whom over 100,000 are former felons who have fully completed their sentences. These citizens live in our communities, work, pay taxes and raise families, yet are deprived of this fundamental right to have a say in how and by whom they are governed and the laws that affect them.
Under Arizona law, individuals who have been convicted of one felony have their civil rights (including the right to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, possess a firearm) restored automatically after completion of their sentence. Individuals who have committed two or more felonies have to wait two years after their final discharge from prison until they can apply to the court to have their rights restored; those who complete a sentence of probation instead of prison do not have to wait two years to apply.
When considering how you feel about whether someone who commits multiple felonies deserves the right to vote, it is important to put some context around “two or more felonies.” Keep in mind that Arizona has very harsh sentencing laws. Thus, many offenders accrue multiple felony convictions for low-level, nonviolent crimes like drug possession and shoplifting, crimes that in other states are classified as misdemeanors. I am sure that it comes as no surprise that disenfranchisement disproportionately affects people of color and the economically disadvantaged. However, you may be surprised to learn that women are well represented in prison for such low-level crimes.
The process to apply for rights restoration can be a bewildering and cumbersome experience, starting with access (or lack thereof) to information; many recently-released individuals do not know that they have the right to apply or how to proceed. Information is not readily available and is often confusing and contradictory.
Automatic restoration would replace the current application process, which imposes a bureaucratic and expensive burden on the government, is time-consuming and confusing for both the applicant and those implementing the review process, and subjects applicants to discretionary and potentially discriminatory decision making on the part of those judicial officers who review and rule on the restoration petitions. Clerks often disqualify applications with paperwork deficiencies during initial reviews. In Maricopa County, a significant number of applications are denied.
There are economic, societal, and legal reasons to support automatic restoration of civil rights for those who have been convicted of two or more felonies. First, depriving citizens of civil rights prolongs punishment after the sentence has been served, which flies in the face of a basic tenet of our criminal justice system; once someone has completed his or her sentence, that individual has had the appropriate amount of punishment and is ready to assume the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
Studies have shown that restoration of voting rights is a critical step on the path to rehabilitation and facilitates successful reentry into society, which has positive economic effects. Without these rights, the opportunity to get business licenses, housing, and jobs is often out of reach, thus continuing the cycle of hopelessness, poverty, and crime. Denial of these rights creates a stratum of second-class citizens, whereas restoration of these rights strengthens individuals’ ties to the community.
These restoration efforts are not happening in a vacuum. Last year a popular ballot initiative in Florida restored voting rights to over 1 million former felons. States all across the country – Maryland, New York, Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota – are working on re-enfranchisement efforts, demonstrating strong public support for integrating formerly incarcerated individuals back into the community.
Getting back to the good news, several bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that provide for automatic restoration of voting rights to those with two or more felonies. They include HB2099, introduced by Representative Espinoza (D19) and co-sponsored by our own LD18 Representative Jennifer Jermaine, as well as HB2401, SB1117, SB1202, and SB1377. As of this writing, all bills have been referred to committee, but there has been no further action.
For these bills to have a chance to move forward, we need to ramp up our armchair advocacy and contact the appropriate committee chairs to insist that they schedule public hearings. Use RTS to find the committees to which these bills have been assigned and use this handy list of legislative leaders and committee members to locate the committee chairs and any other legislators on the relevant committees with whom you have any connection. Call, write, post on social media, comment in RTS, show up at hearings to speak on behalf of the bills and share personal stories.
In our democracy, every citizen has the right to vote, even in Arizona, the only state without an explicit constitutional provision granting that right. There is nothing further to be gained from a criminal justice, public policy or economic perspective by delaying or denying access to the ballot box to people who have served their time.
Gitelle Seer is a retired NYC law librarian and a seasonal resident in Tempe.
Header photo credit: joebelanger.com