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NAACP pushes to reinstate former felons' voting rights

By Alanne Orjoux, CNN
updated 3:54 PM EDT, Tue October 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pradia was convicted of a first-time, non-violent drug offense in Virginia in 1992
  • The NAACP says state efforts to block ex-felons from voting is discriminatory
  • Florida has one of the toughest processes to restore former felons' voting rights

(CNN) -- Kemba Smith Pradia voted for the first time in her life in Indianapolis city elections last fall.

This year, she moved from Indiana to Virginia, a few months ahead of the November presidential election, in which she'd very much like to cast her ballot.

But she can't. Pradia is a former felon, and in Virginia, people convicted of violent felonies, drug crimes, and certain other offenses must wait for five years before even applying for a gubernatorial restoration of voting rights. That's five years after serving your sentence, finishing supervised probation and paying all fines and restitution. And those five years have to be clean -- no misdemeanors or pending convictions, or the application is void.

Such laws -- which exist in various forms in 11 other states besides Virginia -- mean that an estimated 5.8 million people do not have the right to vote, according to ProCon.org, a non-partisan group that researches and tracks controversial issues.

The NAACP launched a nationwide campaign Tuesday to restore voting rights for ex-felons, saying that state efforts to block such rights are thinly veiled attempts to suppress the black vote.

NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous kicked off the campaign in Florida, which has the highest level of disenfranchisement in the country.

"What this comes down to really is, do you think voting is a right or is it a privilege? Because if voting is a right, people who have paid their debt to society should be allowed to vote," Jealous said earlier Tuesday on "CNN Newsroom."

In 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, a Republican at the time, signed reforms to allow former felons who'd completed their sentences to more easily get their voting rights restored. Four years later, Republican Gov. Rick Scott reversed those reforms, imposing a five- to seven-year waiting period and a complicated application process to get civil rights restored.

In issuing the new rules for voting rights for ex-felons, Scott said the changes "are intended to emphasize public safety and ensure that all applicants desire clemency, deserve clemency, and demonstrate they are unlikely to reoffend."

"It stands to reason that individuals who have committed serious violence or sexual offenses; abused the privilege of holding public office; endangered society with poisonous drugs; or carried a firearm after they have been convicted should be required to attend a hearing and explain why their rights should be restored," Scott said in a statement in March of 2011.

According to a study of state data by the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, 7,000 people were removed from Florida's voter rolls in the first four months of this year for recent felony convictions. Among those removed, 51% are Democrats and 17% are Republicans.

Nationally, 38% of the people disenfrachised due to felony convictions are African-American, according to the Sentencing Project. The American Civil Liberties Union said Florida has the nation's largest share of disenfranchised voters, where nearly one out of every five black men overall is ineligible to vote.

Every vote counts in Florida, a heavily contested battleground in the 2012 elections and the pivotal player in the result of the 2000 elections, which was decided by 537 votes in favor of George Bush.

Another swing state crucial to the elections this year is Virginia, where former felons who have served their sentences and paid all fines and restitution must wait "a minimum of two years for a non-violent offense or five years for a violent felony or drug distribution, drug manufacturing offense, any crimes against a minor, or an election law offense" before applying to have their voting rights restored.

Pradia was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 1994 for a crack cocaine conviction that she says was the result of her abusive relationship with a drug dealer. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence to time served.

But that wasn't the end of her punishment.

"One of the collateral consequences of having been incarcerated is losing my right to vote," she told a United Nations Human Rights Council panel in Geneva last week. An NAACP delegation urged the U.N.'s special rapporteur on racism to investigate what it said were racially discriminatory election laws in the United States.

Not being able to vote "makes one feel inferior," Pradia told CNN Tuesday.

"You don't want people that are trying to reintegrate, trying to live a better lifestyle, to feel this way," she added. "It's hard for me to be able to explain to my children why I'm not able to vote when I pay taxes, and they see me working hard and doing things I should be doing as a citizen."

Pradia said she applied in August for her voting rights to be restored in Virginia. She has not yet received a response to her request.

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