Since Right to Vote in 2006, Over 6,000 Formerly Disenfranchised Rhode Islanders Have Registered to Vote.

January 6, 2010 - 3:42pm

R.I. Change on Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts Wins Praise
By John Hill, Projo

July 30: PROVIDENCE — On Election Night in 2006, Marc Maurer was interested in the results from Kansas because he had a sister-in-law running for office out there, but the returns he checked every 10 minutes were out of Rhode Island.

Maurer is executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that works for changes in state and federal sentencing practices. One of the group’s causes is winning back voting rights for people with felony convictions, and Rhode Island had a referendum question that, if it passed, would do exactly that.

“Every ten minutes I was checking to see how the vote was coming in,” he said Tuesday, addressing the annual meeting of OPENDOORS, which, until it changed its name Tuesday, was called The Family Life Center, an organization that helps ex-convicts adjust to life outside of prison. It was a good night all round, Maurer said. His sister-in-law won and the Rhode Island referendum passed, with 51 percent of the vote.

“I don’t know of any organization that has done more on this issue, disenfranchisement, than the Family Life Center [now OPENDOORS],” he said.

The amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution changed the law so that once a felon is released from prison, he or she is able to register to vote. Under the old law, felons could not vote until the completion of their entire sentences, including jail time and probation or parole. Since probation or parole terms can run a decade or more in some cases, an estimated 15,000 people in the state were prevented from voting. After passage, about 6,000 registered to vote in the 2008 elections.

Maurer said the Sentencing Project had been working on restoring felons’ voting rights on a state-by-state basis. It had concentrated its efforts in states with the more extreme standards — in Kentucky, for instance, only the governor can restore a felon’s right to vote — and held off on pushing it in more moderate states.

Had the Rhode Island question lost, it could have been cited by opponents as evidence that the general public was against the idea. Instead, he said the win meant groups like the Sentencing Project could use it instead.

“What the Family Life Center has done is an inspiration to all of us on the national stage,” Maurer said. “When you got it on the ballot in 2006, many of us were looking at this and saying, ‘You better do a good job.’ ”

“We haven’t had the numbers before to make the case,” he said. “It sends a message. This is a real accomplishment; something we can all learn from.”

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