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August 3rd, 2005 Christian Gaston | News Stories
 

OREGON'S FELONIOUS SPUNK

Washington looks to Oregon as a model for felon voter registration efforts.

     
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Western Prison Project's Cassandra Villanueva (right) helped count ballots last fall from Multnomah County Detention Center.

Oregon's efforts to restore voter rights to felons after prison may be earning the sincerest form of flattery-imitation.

A report released last week by the King County (Wash.) Independent Task Force on Elections recommended the entire state of Washington adopt Oregon's rules on ex-felon voting.

Oregon is one of 34 states where ex-felons not serving time on Election Day may vote. Only Maine and Vermont have more liberal policies, allowing felons to vote while still incarcerated.

Ex-felons in Washington can have their voting rights restored after prison, but the task force appointed after the muddled 2004 Washington governor's race describes the current re-enfranchising process as costly, complex and unfair.

Efforts to register ex-felons in Oregon have stepped up in recent years. In 2001, the Portland-based Western Prison Project advocacy group started a Project Voice registration campaign in Oregon that has since registered 650 former felons.

Last election cycle, in conjunction with the Western Prison Project, the Oregon Secretary of State's Office prepared informational packets of voter rights and voter registration cards for prisoners exiting state penitentiaries.

Last summer, the Western Prison Project also moved Project Voice into Multnomah and Marion county jails, working to register inmates in the county lockups who aren't in for felonies.

"This has been a monumental step in the restoration of voting rights to people who thought they had lost [that] right," says Cassandra Villanueva, a Western Prison Project organizer.

With elections regularly decided by razor-thin margins in some states, activists worry that political intrigue has influenced the use of harsher felon disenfranchisement rules in states like Washington and Florida.

"In some ways there was a very sinister aspect of it, where it seems like the laws were being manipulated for political gain," says David Rogers, Western Prison Project associate director.

According to the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit that researches criminal-justice issues, 4.7 million people in the U.S. are denied voting rights because of prior felony convictions.

Beyond those numbers, prisoner-rights activists also raise concerns about minorities being disenfranchised de facto because they're often overrepresented in state prison populations. In Oregon, 9.5 percent of the state's 12,865 inmates are black, while only 1.6 percent of the total state population is black.

Fred Neal, a top manager in the Secretary of State's Office, shares those concerns.

"Disenfranchisement can lead to disillusionment and disconnection," Neal says, "so maybe reconnection to their communities can lead [ex-felons] to being more responsible in that community."


For more info, go to www.westernprisonproject.org .
 
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