Now’s the time to stream­line the vot­ing process

Albuquerque Journal - - OP-ED - www.DianeDi­mond.com; e-mail to Di­ane@DianeDi­mond.com. Di­ane Di­mond

Phew. The midterm elec­tions are over! You voted, right? Yes? Great.

For those who did not join the record-break­ing throngs that ei­ther cast an early bal­lot or turned out on Elec­tion Day — you missed out. Vot­ing is one of Amer­ica’s great­est civil rights and it, glo­ri­ously, brings us all to­gether — old, young, peo­ple of all races, classes and creeds. In a world where so many hu­man be­ings have ab­so­lutely no con­trol over who runs their coun­try, we reg­u­larly get the chance to make our voices heard.

Ev­ery­one should be heart­ened by the en­er­getic turnout. No mat­ter how di­vi­sive we may be, pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion in the vot­ing process has swelled — some 114 mil­lion of us voted in the midterms — and that’s a good thing. That said, there is still much to be done be­fore we can hon­estly brag about our all-in­clu­sive sys­tem.

For one thing, mil­lions of cit­i­zens are not al­lowed to vote sim­ply be­cause they once served time in prison. That num­ber can be traced to our get-tough-on-crime era that re­sulted in the U.S. in­car­cer­at­ing a larger share of its pop­u­la­tion than any other coun­try in the world. We’ve spent so many decades lock­ing up peo­ple — many sen­tenced to long prison sen­tences for non-vi­o­lent or three-strikes-and-you’re-out crimes — that we have ef­fec­tively dis­en­fran­chised more than 6.2 mil­lion Amer­i­cans.

There are a mish-mash of var­i­ous state re­sponses to ex­of­fend­ers who seek to have a say in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. Some states al­low those with felony records to vote im­me­di­ately af­ter their re­lease. Other states make ex-cons wait un­til their pa­role and/or pro­ba­tion pe­riod is over. A few states take into con­sid­er­a­tion the type of crime com­mit­ted and may re­quire the for­mer pris­oner to un­der­take the long process of seek­ing a gu­ber­na­to­rial par­don be­fore they can vote. The states of Ken­tucky, Iowa and Florida en­acted laws that banned con­victed felons from vot­ing for the rest of their life.

(New Mex­ico statue 31-13-1 in­cludes the re­quire­ment that felons serve their sen­tences, ob­tain a cer­tifi­cate of com­ple­tion and rereg­is­ter to vote.)

Is it fair to con­tinue to pun­ish cit­i­zens even af­ter they’ve paid their debt to so­ci­ety? How can for­mer prison­ers as­sim­i­late back into their neigh­bor­hoods, feel a part of their com­mu­ni­ties, if they are de­nied this most ba­sic right? How can we hope for first-class be­hav­ior from them if we con­tin­u­ously treat them as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens?

I’m glad to re­port that things be­gan to change with this elec­tion. Vot­ers in Florida over­whelm­ingly passed a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment restor­ing nearly 1.5 mil­lion ex-felons to the voter rolls, though those con­victed of mur­der or felony sex of­fenses are still pro­hib­ited. This is seen as a pos­i­tive first step to­ward en­sur­ing all law-abid­ing cit­i­zens have a voice in Florida pol­i­tics. The amend­ment is es­pe­cially wel­comed in the black com­mu­nity where the lat­est stud­ies showed nearly 18 per­cent of the po­ten­tial black vot­ing pool was ex­cluded from the sys­tem be­cause so many of them had a prison record.

If we re­ally want to reach for the goal of full voter par­tic­i­pa­tion, how about states adopt­ing some uni­form guide­lines?

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures, only 37 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia al­low early vot­ing, ei­ther in-per­son or by mail. Yet that is among the eas­i­est and most ef­fi­cient way to cast a bal­lot. Why don’t all states of­fer that? The NCSL also re­ports that in 20 states a ci­ti­zen re­quest­ing an ab­sen­tee bal­lot must pro­vide an of­fi­cial ex­cuse, such as a phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity or over­seas mil­i­tary as­sign­ment. This might de­ter cit­i­zens from try­ing to vote, and does any­one even check out those ex­cuses? I say, if an Amer­i­can wants to vote, states should help not hin­der that de­sire.

Polls in some states close as early as 6 p.m., which seems highly un­help­ful for par­ents jug­gling chil­dren’s hec­tic sched­ules or those strug­gling to leave work to get to the polls. I sug­gest ev­ery state keep vot­ing booths open un­til at least 8 p.m.

Many states re­quire cit­i­zens to reg­is­ter to vote weeks be­fore Elec­tion Day, so pro­cras­ti­na­tors are out of luck. But 11 states — soon to be 16 — al­low same-day voter regis­tra­tion. It’s easy to see that as an elec­tion nears, en­thu­si­asm can build. States should take ad­van­tage of that ea­ger­ness and de­sign a same-day process to sign up ev­ery­one who wants to vote.

Look, we live in a time of great po­lit­i­cal alien­ation. Ac­cord­ing to a Fox News Voter Anal­y­sis poll, 81 per­cent of Amer­i­cans do not trust the gov­ern­ment. An ABC News sur­vey found 51 per­cent of vot­ers be­lieve the gov­ern­ment did not do enough to pro­tect the midterm elec­tions from for­eign in­ter­fer­ence. What bet­ter way to re­store faith in the sys­tem than to have each state fully em­brace its pop­u­la­tion and en­cour­age, rather than dis­cour­age, vot­ing?

And, on a per­sonal note, could all states please make sure there is a hefty sup­ply of those I VOTED stick­ers next elec­tion? My polling place had run out of them by 10:30 a.m., and I missed my op­por­tu­nity to dis­play my good cit­i­zen­ship all day. Good cit­i­zen­ship can be in­fec­tious.

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