Exactly forty-five years after giving testimony in support of the Congressional power to end literacy tests in federal elections as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was coming to a vote, Burt Neuborne, Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties and legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice, returned to Capitol Hill on March 16. This time, he was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties regarding the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009, which would restore voting rights in federal elections to almost four million disenfranchised ex-convicts with a felony in their past.

“The Brennan Center believes that it is both morally wrong and socially self-defeating to exclude citizens who are living and working in the community from full participation in our democracy,” Neuborne said. Tracing criminal disenfranchisement laws back to the 19th-century backlash against Reconstruction, he argued that such laws make those who have already served their time and returned to their communities “second-class citizens.” Such laws remain in all but two states, he said, “as a morally repugnant link with a racist past.” How and whether voting rights can be restored varies from state to state.

“Criminal disenfranchisement laws continue to have a lingering, often intended, racial effect today,” he said, pointing out that 13 percent of African American men have been barred from voting—seven times the national average. Neuborne, urging passage of the act, added, “By providing a uniform national standard to restore voting rights to persons who have been released from prison and have rejoined their communities, the act will achieve widely supported democratic reform in practice, as well as theory, and will finally sever, once and for all, a disturbing link with our country’s troubled racial history.”

Posted on March 25, 2010