The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 7th 2015.
—————–

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                   

How to Sabotage Iran Negotiations in the Name of Avoiding War

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 4th, 2015.
——————

As multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear program continue with the U.S. leading the negotiations, Congress seems to be doing its best to complicate things. And both Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are doing their part to help.

Earlier this week, as 16,000 people convened in Washington, D.C., to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, the powerful pro-Israel lobby made it clear that the organization would push not only for increased sanctions on Iran—through the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act—but also for the ability to make it more difficult to lift sanctions later, via a new bill, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

This latest bill, introduced on Friday by Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, would give Congress a 60-day period to review any negotiated nuclear deal, and if Congress were to reject the deal, then the president would be barred from lifting sanctions.

Josh Rogin reported in Bloomberg View that top members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, pressured Democrats to oppose the Corker-Menendez bill, lest it complicate the already fragile negotiations with Iran. Nevertheless, some Senate Democrats signed on, because there is, as Rogin puts it, “broad Congressional desire not to be totally shut out of the [negotiating] process.”

AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

After AIPAC’s annual conference, it is evident that the pro-Israel lobby plans to capitalize on this congressional “desire” and to escalate its fight with the White House. While the Obama administration and AIPAC both declare that a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

For AIPAC and Netanyahu, a “good deal” would mean allowing for zero enrichment of uranium for any purposes—a non-starter for the Iranians. They also seek a “permanent” deal that locks Iran under restrictions indefinitely. But as Lara Friedman, from the pro-Israel policy organization Americans for Peace Now, has explained:

Iran is in trouble right now because it has repeatedly violated the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), resulting in sanctions. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are grounded in the understanding that by demonstrating compliance with all of its NPT obligations, Iran will no longer be in violation of the NPT and Iran’s tenure in the international doghouse—at least with respect to its nuclear program—can come to a close (at least so long as Iran remains in compliance). An Iran nuclear agreement—whether its provisions are in place for 10 years, or 15 years, or however many years are agreed on—would dramatically mitigate the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Just like the “zero enrichment” idea, Iran would never be able to sell a “permanent” deal to its people. The six world powers leading the diplomatic efforts with Iran (Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the U.S.) understand this and are working to come up with a reasonable compromise that still ensures Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. If AIPAC and Netanyahu are serious about pursuing a diplomatic resolution to this conflict—and avoiding war—then their adamant opposition to both of these ideas raises serious questions.

At the AIPAC conference, speakers spelled out how they could use Congress to thwart the president from passing a deal they deem “bad.” On the gigantic screens in the convention center’s large plenary hall, AIPAC instructed attendees to “insist on a congressional role” when they lobby on Capitol Hill, because “on such a critical issue to U.S. national security, Congress must assert its historic role in foreign policy and review any agreement.”

Passing the Corker-Menendez bill might be an easier sell in Congress than imposing additional sanctions, because it is easier to argue that Congress should have “a voice” in the negotiating process. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday night that he wants to fast-track the bill, which might complicate its ability to garner enough Democratic support in time. Menendez has threatened to vote against his own bill, “outraged” at McConnell’s political move.

Edward Levine, an advisory board member for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to international peace and security, argues that the bill is more harmful than helpful:

Do [Senators] really want to send a message to Tehran that the President may be unable to fulfill his commitments? Do they really want to move the goalposts by adding support for terrorism to the list of reasons for reinstating sanctions? The Corker bill will endanger both the negotiations and the sanctions regime; it does not merit support.

AIPAC is also trying to bolster Congress’s role in the negotiations by minimizing the fact that there has always been significant presidential authority built into U.S. sanctions legislation. The authority comes through various mechanisms, such as “waivers,” special rules, and legislative exemptions, which allow a president to decide, often unilaterally, whether and to what degree to lift or implement sanctions. He can make these choices if he believes doing so is in the national security interest of the United States.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, AIPAC’s legions of supporters pressured Congress to impose more sanctions and to reduce the executive branch’s power to lift sanctions. Let’s just hope that the Iranians do not take this as a signal that the negotiators’ commitment to ease sanctions in exchange for good behavior is feeble. Because if the negotiations fail, the war that everyone is trying to avoid is that much more likely.