Despite two centuries of a national history extending the right to vote to ever more Americans, state legislatures have recently passed a flurry of laws that make voting more difficult. Some require government-issued photo identification cards; others are obstructing early voting or restricting voter registration drives. It’s time for Congress to protect the rights citizens of a democracy hold most dear and create the opportunity for greater citizen participation. Members can begin by opening up the voter rolls to the four million Americans covered by the Democracy Restoration Act.
Introduced by Senator Ben Cardin from Maryland and Representative John Conyers from Michigan, the Democracy Restoration Act is legislation that would restore voting rights in federal elections to Americans disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions. It is based on a simple truth: restore the right to vote and you restore a formerly disenfranchised citizen’s stake in the community, boosting the chances of a successful reentry into mainstream society. Withhold it and you send a powerful message that individuals with past criminal convictions are not welcome to rejoin our democracy.
At the heart of our criminal justice system is a belief in rehabilitation and redemption. A person who has committed a crime could lose his or her liberty for a period of time. But when the criminal justice system decides she or he can appropriately live among us, we cannot expect a person to work, pay taxes and assimilate back into the community if he or she is not afforded a voice in how that society is governed. This is not only unfair; it is counterproductive to making the nation safer and more democratic.