The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 7th 2015.
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Rachel M. cohen

SEIU 1199 

Rachel M. Cohen

       

On August 6, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, dozens of Baltimore ex-felons rallied and marched alongside community members to protest their disenfranchisement. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill which would have granted ex-felons the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than making them wait until after their probation and parole sentences have been completed (some sentences can last for decades). Holding up signs that read, “We Want Taxation with Representation!” and “End the New Jim Crow!” protestors made clear that they understand the racial implications of the status quo. Had Hogan signed the bill into law, 40,000 more Maryland residents—a majority of them black Baltimoreans—would have been able to cast a ballot in the next election. “Override! Override! The veto! The veto!” protestors shouted together as they marched down the street.

The crowd, well over 100 people, eventually gathered around a statue of Thurgood Marshall, not far from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “We picked that spot because he’s one of the greatest symbols of justice and fairness,” explained Perry Hopkins, an ex-felon who now works as an organizer with Communities United, the social justice group that planned Thursday’s rally. Fifty-four-year-old Hopkins has never voted.

While Baltimore has made national headlines this year for its police brutality scandals and its spiking murder count, the gathered crowd recognized that these issues cannot be separated from the societal exclusion African-Americans experience every day.

One woman who came to the rally was Robinette Barmer, who has had two children and one grandchild locked up in jail. Barmer has been fighting for ex-felon voting rights all year, and traveled to Annapolis last spring to push for the bill’s passage. “I try to tell ex-cons that their voices do still matter,” she said.

Greg Carpenter, a 62-year-old black man who served 20 years in prison for an armed robbery, also has a 20-year parole sentence. Although Carpenter has been out of jail for 12 years now, he worries he won’t ever get to vote again in his lifetime.

Governor Hogan said that requiring ex-felons to finish their parole and probation sentences before voting “achieves the proper balance” between repaying one’s obligations to society and restoring citizens’ rights. Ex-felons point out that they are both working and paying taxes within their communities, and thus should also have the right to vote.

Social science research suggests that removing voting restrictions would provide positive benefits to both ex-offenders and society at large. The American Probation and Parole Association also says there is no credible evidence to suggest that disenfranchising people who have returned home from prison serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, there are roughly 5.85 million disenfranchised American citizens with felony convictions, and 2.2 million of them are black. That’s one out of every 13 African-Americans.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to end discriminatory voting barriers but the courts have disagreed on whether the VRA should apply to felon disenfranchisement laws. Maryland activists aren’t waiting around for the courts, though. At Thursday’s rally, organizers prepped the crowd for next year’s legislative season where they hope to push for an override. “We need you to show up and come out with us to Annapolis,” said Nicole Hanson, an ex-offender who works with Out4Justice, a group that politically mobilizes ex-offenders. “There’s only 90 days of [the legislative] session, so we’ll need you to make some sacrifices.”

Eighteen states considered loosening ex-felon voting restrictions this year, up from 13 states in 2014. But passing legislation, as Maryland activists witnessed first hand, is difficult. Only one state—Wyoming—ended up successfully loosening its restrictions.

Still, there has been demonstrable progress. The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly 800,000 citizens have regained the right to vote through voting reforms enacted between 1997 and 2010. Last month, President Obama even said that, “If folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”

“This is a very peaceful rally, but this issue is personal,” Hopkins said in an interview. “We’re going to flip power, and we’re going to empower. We’re going to show the governor who’s the boss. We’re the boss! We’re the people.”

Rachel M. Cohen

Perry Hopkins at the podium                   

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NEA Members Announce They Will Fight Institutional Racism. Do They Mean It?

Originally published on the American Prospect Tapped blog on July 9, 2015.
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At the National Education Association’s recently concluded annual meeting—a gathering where the country’s largest labor union sets its policy priorities for the coming year—delegates passed several historic measures that committed the union to fighting institutional racism.

Perhaps the most notable measure was New Business Item B, which passed unanimously. It opened with language stating that the NEA “acknowledge[s] the existence in our country of institutional racism—the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” Allocating $277,000 to the effort, the union pledged to, among other things, focus on providing support for programs that can “end the school to prison pipeline” and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.” While this funding will last for one year, the measure includes a clause that says some money should go toward “researching implications for NEA’s Strategic Plan and Budget for 2016-2018,” which suggests that the union would consider devoting more resources to anti-racist efforts in the future.

EduColor—a relatively new movement to elevate public school advocates of color on issues of equity and justice—released a statement following the NEA’s conference. While EduColor’s members applauded the steps taken by the union to confront institutional racism, they pointed out that “it should humble all of us to some degree that it took such a long time to do what seemed so obvious to NEA members of color.” With school segregation, inequitable school funding, and shortages of black and brown teachers, EduColor said, “Now, we must go beyond statements and into the substance of our actions.” Making anti-racist work compulsory for their union, they argue, must “sit side-by-side with collective bargaining rights.”

Jose Vilson, the founder of EduColor, writing on his blog, said he hopes the NEA is committed to fighting racism because its members truly believe in social justice, and not because its members are afraid of being labeled as racists if they don’t. Vilson noted that the NEA introduced and passed bills that he “wouldn’t have thought possible even a few months ago”—a testament to the hard and difficult conversations taking place in their union and across the country—but that still, “we have to recognize that many of our colleagues aren’t ready to hear that they may be part of the problem, too.”

The questions that have come to the forefront of education policy debates over the past year are not about to disappear, or be resolved, anytime soon. The NEA joins the American Federation of Teachers, a union with a much longer history of tackling racial justice issues, in reckoning with how to fight politically for greater equity and opportunity both within and outside of the school building. While the two unions seem to recognize that education is greatly impacted by economic inequality, incarceration, and racism, it will no doubt take activist educators to keep their organizations’ priorities focused on results.