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Franchised Felons

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Martha Stewart won't be voting for George Bush or John Kerry this year -- in fact, she won't be voting at all. The media mogul and convicted felon is serving time, which means that under New York law, she's lost her right to vote just in time for the November election.

Things would have been different if she lived in Vermont, one of only two states that allows convicted felons to vote while imprisoned; the other is Maine. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz confirms that Vermont law has never banned felons from voting, possibly because of Vermonters' willingness to "live and let live." Vermont inmates retain the right to vote during their incarceration, even if they're housed out of state. All they have to do is request an absentee ballot.

Other states make it more difficult for felons to vote even if they've completed their sentences; according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit prisoner reform group, 35 states withhold suffrage from felons during parole, 31 during probation. Several other states, like Florida, revoke suffrage from felons and never give it back. An August 18 article in The Washington Post estimates that these restrictions will disenfranchise nearly 4.7 million people this year, including roughly 13 percent of African-American men.

Markowitz says that there has been no effort in recent memory to make Vermont's felon voting law more restrictive. She guesses that's because no one knows how they'll vote. "Felons aren't a voting bloc," she says. But the Post reported that last year, Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors admitted a partisan slant to the issue: "As frank as I can be," he said, "we're opposed to [restoring voting rights] because felons don't tend to vote Republican."

Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert says that he hasn't heard any voting-related complaints from Vermont inmates. In Florida, the Secretary of State recently circulated a list of felons to be purged from the voter rolls before election day. But Gilbert says, "There's nothing like that here."

However, Markowitz says just because felons can vote doesn't mean that they do. "I would expect not many do," she says. "By and large, people in prison feel disconnected from the larger community."

Markowitz notes that inmate voter registration programs do exist in Vermont, and suggests that civic engagement can help combat recidivism. "Participation in the democratic process is one way of encouraging that connection with the community," she says.

It's still not too late to register. The deadline in Vermont is October 25.

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