On election day, remember that various forms of incarceration have disenfranchised 5.85 million Americans.
Only 25% of these 5.85 million are currently incarcerated, according to The Sentencing Project. Eleven different states’ rules restrict 45% of the 5.85 million from voting because they are serving probation or are out on parole. That’s about 2.83 million that have finished their sentences and are a part of society like anyone else; yet, if they have a problem with those in office, they’ll have to deal with it.
Bennett Barbour is on His Deathbed and Can’t Vote
Bennett Barbour is a 56-year-old Virginian man who was wrongfully convicted for rape in 1978. When the Virginia Supreme Court declared him innocent of his charges in May 2012, it had been 35 years since his conviction. So why can’t he vote?
Police were able to place Barbour in the lineup that led to his false conviction for rape because he had been convicted for grand larceny and theft the year before. The rape case jailed him for 4.5 years, until 1983 when he got out on parole for the remaining 5.5 years of his 10 year sentence.
With all of his attention on finally being exonerated of a conviction that ruined his life, it is understandable if Barbour assumed that he had his civil rights restored. So when he received an application in the mail to register to vote, he filled it out, mailed it, and received a voter’s card. But later on, he found out that an error in the Virginia Election Registration Information System did not pick up that he may have a felony.
A Right, not a Privilege
Different states have different assessments as to the rights of those with felonies during and after their sentences. Virginia, Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky allow people with felonies to regain their right to vote when the individual applies for it or petitions the State.
So essentially, these American citizens have to beg for something that citizenship grants them. The application process is convoluted and discouraging to the point that people with felonies, even after having served their sentence, will likely never regain their voting rights.
According to an article from the Richmond-Times Dispatch:
…applicants convicted of burglary and grand larceny in Virginia must pay all costs, fines, and/or restitution associated with their convictions and wait two years after the completion of their sentence and/or release from supervised probation and parole. They also must have no misdemeanors or pending criminal charges for two years preceding the application and no DUI conviction within the past five years.
Considering the State has not compensated Barbour for his wrongful years in prison, he is not likely to be in the financial shape to pay the money owed from his conviction for larceny and theft. His time in life is running short. He may not survive until another election.
In a situation like this, is the justice system deterring prospective criminals from committing crimes? Or is Virginia’s Supreme Court simply going to be at loss for respect.
Why Neglect this Right?
If anything, the loss of the right to vote saps the already weakened hope that a felony places on one’s efforts to re-enter society and change their path in life.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said:
Fundamentally, democracy is about participation by everyone, and we don’t put a character test on the right to vote. By excluding people because of felony convictions, we’re confusing legislative goals of punishment with forfeiting legitimate rights of citizenship.
Denying Barbour’s right–not privilege–will not deter anyone from committing related crimes. His convictions have been the result of so many factors; potential criminals will not take his punishment as a warning but rather take it with a that-could-never-happen-to-me approach.
Barbour is technically being punished for a crime he may have committed. However, he has yet to receive any monetary compensation to make up for his life lost to the justice system’s failure in convicting him. The State of Virginia owes him something beyond justice. They owe him some sort of compensation. Can they at least grant a dying wish?
To Their Credit
While the State is trying to enable Barbour to vote, Virginia’s strict policy is making it almost impossible to clear him. The laws have tied the justice system’s hands behind its back. Officials are making every legal effort possible to allow him to vote.
According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch, Tucker Martin–spokesman for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell–said that they are exploring all available options and want to do something to enable Barbour to vote. But with election day upon us, it is likely that they will not be able to permit it in time.
Surely, they are trying to their best abilities. So the only place we can focus frustration against is on Virginia’s restrictions on the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated.
UPDATE AS OF Nov. 5: Bennett Barbour got to vote on Tuesday! Lawyers and volunteers raised $1,100 to pay the county he was convicted in so that Gov. Bob McDonnell could restore his rights. Gov. McDonnell then pardoned some fees Bennett owed to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, and he was cleared to vote.
Read Nonprofit Vote’s page that details each state’s policy on allowing people with offenses to vote.
The Sentencing Project’s section on felony disenfranchisement provides constant updates on this and many other civil rights issues in America.