The other 5 million

While this figure is certainly daunting, we must be careful not to limit our concerns about contemporary voting barriers to this latest round of changes. To do so would ignore the plight of 5 million other citizens — specifically, people with criminal convictions — who were disenfranchised long before the recent spate of harsh voting restrictions ever passed. 

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Today, the United States Senate is scheduled to introduce a bill to address precisely this problem. If enacted, the Democracy Restoration Act, which was introduced in the House earlier this year, would restore voting rights in federal elections to people with past criminal convictions once they have completed their prison sentences. The bill would ultimately enfranchise 4 million people living and working in our communities who have served their time but nevertheless remain barred from voting under state laws that exclude even former prisoners from electoral participation. 

Giving these individuals a meaningful political voice would increase their stake in our democracy and, at the same time, help them reintegrate into their home communities. It would not only encourage them to engage actively in civic life, but would also give them a chance to begin their lives anew with full citizenship rights rather than stigmatize them with the mark of their past criminal convictions. This is, after all, part of the promise of this nation — that if you make a mistake and pay your dues, you will have the opportunity for full redemption. This includes regaining the right to vote.

A diverse coalition of groups has already recognized these benefits and this promise by rallying around the bill. Numerous law enforcement officers and criminal justice officials have thrown their support behind the bill, recognizing that voting rights facilitate successful re-entry by strengthening ties between former prisoners and the communities where they live, work, and help raise their families. In addition, a host of different faith leaders have voiced their support for the legislation, noting that it reflects a deep commitment to forgiveness and a firm belief in people’s capacity for redemption. 

Civil rights organizations, too, have championed the Democracy Restoration Act since the bill would help reduce the significant racial disparities that criminal disenfranchisement create among the electorate. These laws often intersect with the staggering over-representation of African Americans and Latinos in our jails and prisons, which substantially undermines the voting strength of communities of color. In New York state, for instance, more than 80 percent of the people who have been disenfranchised due to a past conviction are black or Latino. Nationally, 13 percent of African-American men have lost their right to vote because of a past criminal conviction, as have many Latinos. 

These disparities are not surprising in light of the history of felon disenfranchisement laws in this country. Many of these laws were enacted during the Jim Crow era and were passed alongside poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses — all of which were specifically designed to keep African Americans from voting. The Democracy Restoration Act would help alleviate the continuing racial impact of these laws on today’s voters.

The bill is also quite timely in light of the current voting rights climate in this country. With so many states doubling down on new voting restrictions that subject voters to onerous photo ID rules, saddle them with proof-of-citizenship requirements, and hinder voter registration drives, members of Congress have grown particularly concerned about the direction in which our democracy is currently headed. Attorney General Eric Holder even addressed these laws in a speech this week in Austin, Texas. While federal lawmakers should continue to investigate the effects of these new state laws, they should take affirmative steps to promote political participation, as well. 

The Democracy Restoration Act gives them an opportunity to do just that. By enfranchising people in our community with past criminal convictions, Congress would not only help millions of former prisoners better their lives — it would also help this country better its democracy for all of its citizens, as promised.

Nicole Austin-Hillery is Director and Counsel of the Washington, D.C. office of the Brennan Center for Justice. Nic Riley is a Counsel and Fellow for the Center’s Democracy Program.