Phew. The midterm elections are over! You voted, right? Yes? Great.
For those who did not join the record-breaking throngs that either cast an early ballot or turned out on Election Day – you missed out. Voting is one of America’s greatest civil rights and it, gloriously, brings us all together – old, young, people of all races, classes and creeds. In a world where so many human beings have absolutely no control over who runs their country, we regularly get the chance to make our voices heard.
Everyone should be heartened by the energetic turnout. No matter how divisive we may be, public participation in the voting process has swelled – some 114 million of us voted in the midterms – and that’s a good thing. That said, there is still much to be done before we can honestly brag about our all-inclusive system.
For one thing, millions of citizens are not allowed to vote simply because they once served time in prison. That number can be traced to our get-tough-on-crime era that resulted in the U.S. incarcerating a larger share of its population than any other country in the world. We’ve spent so many decades locking up people – many sentenced to long prison sentences for non-violent or three-strikes-and-you’re-out crimes – that we have effectively disenfranchised more than 6.2 million Americans.
There are a mish-mash of various state responses to ex-offenders who seek to have a say in our political system. Some states allow those with felony records to vote immediately after their release. Other states make ex-cons wait until their parole and/or probation period is over. A few states take into consideration the type of crime committed and may require the former prisoner to undertake the long process of seeking a gubernatorial pardon before they can vote. The states of Kentucky, Iowa and Florida enacted laws that banned convicted felons from voting for the rest of their life.
(New Mexico statue 31-13-1 includes the requirement that felons serve their sentences, obtain a certificate of completion and re-register to vote.)
Is it fair to continue to punish citizens even after they’ve paid their debt to society? How can former prisoners assimilate back into their neighborhoods, feel a part of their communities, if they are denied this most basic right? How can we hope for first-class behavior from them if we continuously treat them as second-class citizens?
I’m glad to report that things began to change with this election. Voters in Florida overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment restoring nearly 1.5 million ex-felons to the voter rolls, though those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses are still prohibited. This is seen as a positive first step toward ensuring all law-abiding citizens have a voice in Florida politics. The amendment is especially welcomed in the black community where the latest studies showed nearly 18 percent of the potential black voting pool was excluded from the system because so many of them had a prison record.
If we really want to reach for the goal of full voter participation, how about states adopting some uniform guidelines?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 37 states and the District of Columbia allow early voting, either in-person or by mail. Yet that is among the easiest and most efficient way to cast a ballot. Why don’t all states offer that? The NCSL also reports that in 20 states a citizen requesting an absentee ballot must provide an official excuse, such as a physical disability or overseas military assignment. This might deter citizens from trying to vote, and does anyone even check out those excuses? I say, if an American wants to vote, states should help not hinder that desire.
Polls in some states close as early as 6 p.m., which seems highly unhelpful for parents juggling children’s hectic schedules or those struggling to leave work to get to the polls. I suggest every state keep voting booths open until at least 8 p.m.
Many states require citizens to register to vote weeks before Election Day, so procrastinators are out of luck. But 11 states – soon to be 16 – allow same-day voter registration. It’s easy to see that as an election nears, enthusiasm can build. States should take advantage of that eagerness and design a same-day process to sign up everyone who wants to vote.
Look, we live in a time of great political alienation. According to a Fox News Voter Analysis poll, 81 percent of Americans do not trust the government. An ABC News survey found 51 percent of voters believe the government did not do enough to protect the midterm elections from foreign interference. What better way to restore faith in the system than to have each state fully embrace its population and encourage, rather than discourage, voting?
And, on a personal note, could all states please make sure there is a hefty supply of those I VOTED stickers next election? My polling place had run out of them by 10:30 a.m., and I missed my opportunity to display my good citizenship all day. Good citizenship can be infectious.
www.DianeDimond.com; e-mail to Diane@DianeDimond.com.