Wyoming has opportunity to correct voter disenfranchisement
Guest column by Rosemary Lytle
— August 28, 2014
When it comes to restoring former felons’ right to vote, Wyoming is a solid No. 3 — as in third-worst in the nation. Only two states, Nebraska and Arizona, keep a larger percentage of former felons out of the voting booth than the “Equality State.” Essentially, it keeps them out of democracy, according to attorney Linda Burt of the American Civil Liberties Union.
But there’s a coming window of opportunity.
The results of a September meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee (see agenda) will tell whether Wyoming moves to restore a clear and transparent path to re-enfranchisement for former felons, moves to completely eliminate the path or does absolutely nothing at all, waiting to see what the result of the November elections will bring. But Burt, executive director at the ACLU of Wyoming, says laws that deny former felons from voting are simply unjust. The negative political impact on communities and democracy-busting racial impact are well-known.
“We say that we want to bring people who have been incarcerated back into community; that we want to make sure they are contributing parts of our societies,” Burt said. “This is how you do that; by allowing people to vote. You have served your time. Now, your rights are restored – except the right to vote?”
Burt said many in Wyoming — moderate Republicans and Libertarians among them — support restoring rights to felons after they have served their time. But Wyoming has only restored those rights to 58 former felons. According to figures released by the ACLU in 2010, the latest available, more than 25,000 Wyomingites are denied the right to vote because of their status as former felons. African-Americans constitute more than 6 percent of all those who have been denied the right to vote post-conviction – even though African-Americans constitute a mere 0.8 percent of the Wyoming population.
Burt said the racial disproportion – the “New Jim Crow” — nature of Wyoming’s law demands a fix. Those released from felony conviction must wait five years before they can apply for restoration. Application must be made to the Parole Board (which doesn’t want to handle it) but only for certain nonviolent offenses.
Still, freedom might come, sooner or later. The tale will be told when the Joint Judiciary Committee meets – or maybe they will avoid the question altogether. The concern is that there will be a new committee next year, because there will be newly elected representatives after November 4, and a new Legislature in January.
Like death penalty abolition and marijuana decriminalization, the future of former felon voting rights restoration is being played out mostly in the states. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow people to vote in prison, according to information from The Sentencing Project, based in Washington, D.C. The other 48 and the District of Columbia deny the ballot to those serving sentences for felony violations.
Discussions have centered on the documented impact of disenfranchisement on entire communities composed of people of color. Among African-American voters, one in every 13 persons in the U.S. is disenfranchised because of felony conviction. Among non-African American voters, one in every 56 persons is disenfranchised because of felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project.
“If the truth is told, there has not been an overwhelming support for full restoration in Wyoming,” Burt said. But now we’re at a point where it is essentially about whether the Tea Party candidates who care very little about this win in November or whether the Republican or Libertarian candidates who might see the issue of civil rights take the State House.
“Really, our very democracy is at stake,” Burt said.
— Rosemary Lytle worked for more than 20 years as a daily newspaper journalist. She is State President of the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming and Board Chair of Murder Victim’s Families for Restoration, an anti-death penalty group based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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