Carole Levine April 10, 2023
I spend a lot of time reading news articles and trying to keep up with what is happening with the many issues that I advocate for and care about. My inbox is jammed each morning with the wisdom of those whom I “follow” and they often point me to the writing of others. I could spend my entire day in front of my computer screen and not get through what is there.
But this past week as I was going through my daily voting rights information from ReThink Media (www.ReThinkMedia.org) , I was a bit taken back by the lead articles. This is a source that I trust and use on a regular basis. ReThink usually highlights and summarizes one lead article and then follows up with a list of other voting-related articles that one can link to. But on Wednesday of last week, I was surprised that they choose to highlight and summarize two articles. And those two articles could not have been more different. They seemed to contradict each other in terms of voting rights content
The first article was a Guardian article that was, for me, a “downer”. It reported on a a secret, 2-day conference of “secretaries of state” and other election administrators from 13 Republican-controlled states. The focus of the meetings sessions was on policies that would restrict access to the ballot box and amplify false claims that fraud is rampant in American elections. The unstated yet implicit goal is to dampen Democratic turnout and help Republican candidates to victory.
According to the Guardian article, the meeting was organized by the Heritage Foundation, with the Public Interest Legal Foundation (Pilf), and the Honest Elections Project (HEP). Pilf is a conservative legal group that sues election officials to force them to purge voter rolls, a process that has restricted eligible US voters. HEP is a conservative dark-money group closely tied to the Republican operative Leonard Leo who was instrumental in engineering the current conservative supermajority on the US supreme court.
According to Hans von Spakovsky, a lawyer for the Heritage Foundation and a well-known propagator of election fraud theory, the meeting was organized as an “educational summit intended to provide information on current issues in elections and ensure that our election process protects the right to vote for American citizens by making it easy to vote and hard to cheat”. The fact that the only attendees were members of the Republican party did not seem to give him pause. And the conference was organized amid great secrecy.
With a number of the participants owning histories of election denial and voter suppression, including lawsuits, one might wonder what kind of sharing would transpire at such a gathering. Being a fly on the wall for some of those conversations might be most interesting. Panel discussions laid out in the agenda were held on several of the core talking points of the current Republican party. No wonder Von Spakovsky described it as: “This is not a public event. It is a private, confidential meeting of the secretaries.”
Reading this as the lead article on voting rights was not a great start to my day. But then, it was followed by a second article that I found to be more uplifting. Perhaps reading about prisoners and those in jail does not sound inspirational. But following the secret meeting around planning for voter suppression in Red States, almost anything might help! An article about increasing the voter roles by giving prisoners with felony convictions the right to vote upon release from prison seemed to strike the right balance.
Writing for Pew Charitable Trust and Stateline Daily, Matt Vasilogambros looked at the broad issue of states granting voting rights to convicted felons. His conclusion – more and more states are moving to allow this, and some are even allowing prisoners to vote while still incarcerated. New Mexico joined Minnesota and 21 other states in allowing people previously convicted of felonies to vote upon leaving prison. Most of those states have done this in the past two decades. Some states, like Florida, want to require people with felony convictions have additional waiting periods or that they pay all fines associated with their sentences. Doing this makes regaining voting rights almost impossible. But Reggie Theford, deputy political director for Stand Up America, a grassroots organization that is supporting these bills for granting voting rights to convicted felons without these restrictions said: “Citizenship is not stripped away at the prison gates, and neither should the right to vote.”
The New Mexico law went further than just voting rights for convicted felons. It includes broader mail-in ballot access for Native Americans, expands same-day voter registration and adds new voting rights for people with felony convictions. It also ends the practice of canceling a person’s voter registration upon their felony conviction, scraps a requirement that people finish probation or parole before being allowed to vote and gives exiting inmates the opportunity to register to vote upon leaving prison. While all of the Republicans in the New Mexico State Senate voted against the bill, Democratic State Senator Katy Duhigg, who supported the legislation said, “The more someone has a say in their community, the more invested they are in the community, the more likely they’re going to be a productive member of that community. Re-enfranchising folks who are leaving incarceration is a really important and effective way to reduce recidivism.”
Ten additional state have similar legislation under consideration. Bills in Mississippi, Virginia and West Virginia failed this session, while lawmakers in California, Illinois, Oregon and five other states are considering legislation that would give full voting rights to people with felony convictions, even allowing them to vote in prison. Perhaps the idea that voting is, indeed, a way to re-engage with one’s community is a sound idea is catching on.
So I still ponder the yin and yang of these two stories. The first one on how to achieve and maintain political power through voter suppression done via secret meetings of those who hold high office and control state election processes. The second, on the value of restoring the right to vote to those who have been convicted of crimes, served time in prison, and are re-entering their communities. In each case, voting and voting rights are central to the story. In each case the approach is totally different. In the first, it is how best to suppress, control and take away the vote. In the second, it is how to uplift, restore and elevate this right as a means of re-integrating people into a community. Clearly, voting is powerful. It is meaningful. And it divides us. These two stories truly represent where we are as a nation when it comes to voting rights. Will we suppress them or uphold them? This may be what determines the character of our nation.
As the late Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights hero, said in a 2019 Commonwealth interview: “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”