The Colorado Supreme Court today upheld a Colorado statute barring parolees from voting, in the face of a challenge to the constitutionality of the law arising under the state constitution.
The challenge, brought by a felon on parole, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, and Colorado- CURE, under Article VII, Section 10 of the Colorado Constitution which provides that:
No person while confined in any public prison shall be entitled to vote; but every such person who was a qualified elector prior to such imprisonment, and who is released therefrom by virtue of a pardon, or by virtue of having served out a full term of imprisonment, shall without further action, be invested with all rights of citizenship, except as otherwise provided in this constitution.
The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision upheld an opinion by the District Court in the City and County of Denver.
At issue was whether parole counts as part of a term of imprisonment, prticularly in light of the language in the constitutional amendment which reads “while confined in any public prison.” This is complicated by the fact that parole didn’t exist in Colorado when that part of the constitution was adopted.
The Colorado Supreme Court finds that the mandatory parole scheme found in Colorado is a form of imprisonment which is part of a sentence of imprisonment, after parsing some ambiguous prior cases. Thus, the statutory ban on parolees voting was upheld.
The case affects about 6,000 people at any given time in Colorado, which has almost 3 million registered voters, most of whom probably wouldn’t have voted even if the right had been made clear to them. (Even in Presidential election years, only about half of all eligible voters actually register to vote and do so). So the impact of the ruling is expected to be modest.
But, the clarity the ruling provides is important. This special session, the General Assembly made it a felony for someone to vote knowing he or she is not entitled to vote. Previously, this had been a misdemeanor.
The issue is a partisan one because studies have confirmed the conventional wisdom that felons who vote tend to favor the Democratic party:
A study by sociologists Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza of Northwestern shows that felons vote for Democrats at a rate of 70 percent or more.
For example, in Colorado, if 40% of the 6,000 people on parole voted, and 70% of them voted for Democrats rather than Republicans, Democrats could expect to get about 960 more votes statewide. This would be enough to make a difference in a close election like the 2000 election in Florida, although it usually wouldn’t change electoral outcomes in the state.
Since the case involves purely issues of state law, it should be beyond review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Neither the federal constitution, which does not actually mandate who must have a right to vote, only what reasons cannot be used to deny someone a right to vote in federal elections, nor federal law, were invoked to challenge the Colorado statute, so there is no federal question in the case.
Thus, any effort to give people on parole a right to vote will have to be made by Colorado’s legislature.
As of November of 2001, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississipi, Virginia and Wyoming ban people convicted of a felony from ever voting again without a pardon or the equivalent.
Arizona (for second offenses only), Nebraska and Nevada have a special procedure which must be taken, and is not automatically granted (except in Nebraska, two years after release), to restore the right to vote of a felony.
Maryland limits post-release prohibitions on voting to second offenders, while Delaware and Tennessee limit disqualification from voting to select crimes.
All other states allow felons who have completed their sentences to vote as a matter of course. Many, like Colorado, include parole as part of the sentence. The District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (subject to limitations for those not registered to vote when convicted) restore voting rights to parolees who have been released from prison.
Maine and Vermont don’t tie the right to vote to felony convictions at all. Even people in prison can vote.
States that have lifetime disenfranchisement laws, like Florida, disproportionately impact African-American men.
In Florida, where many felons are barred forever unless the governor personally decides otherwise, 8 percent of adults cannot vote — including one in four black men.