Yesterday, I joined our partners at the NAACP and the League of Women Voters in testifying against LD 573, a proposed constitutional amendment that would strip some felons of the right to vote while incarcerated. 

In Maine, as in Vermont, the right to vote is not lost upon incarceration.  LD 573 would take away that right and in so doing would erode the fabric of our democracy by decreasing voter participation and discouraging people with certain criminal convictions from maintaining a stake in their constructive reintegration into society.
Proponents argued that this bill was written narrowly to restrict the voting rights only of the worst of the worst.  Some of the testimony we heard yesterday was truly heartbreaking.  But elimination of a constitutional right is not an appropriate punishment.  Restricting voting rights does not provide due compensation to victims or to the victims’ families. Nor will restricting voting rights prevent crime.

Instead, disfranchising people following their criminal conviction accomplishes exactly the opposite of what we should be doing to promote re-entry.  In fact, removing the right to vote can only diminish an inmate’s stake in society and lessen their motivation to maintain their social ties. In this way, disfranchisement of citizens with criminal convictions is actually harmful to the long-term prospects for sustainable reintegration of ex-offenders into society.  In fact, some evidence suggests that ex-offenders who vote are less likely to re-offend.
Overall, criminal disenfranchisement also has a disproportionate impact on minority communities. Across the country approximately 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote under felon disenfranchisement laws like LD 573, and almost 1 in 6 (2.23 million) are African American. Many call felony disenfranchisement laws “the new Jim Crow” because of the disproportionate impact on voting rights of people of color.  The racial disparities created by these policies are stark. 
As the U.S. Supreme Court stated long ago in Yick Wo v. Hopkins,  "the political franchise of voting" is a "fundamental political right, because  [it is] preservative of all rights."
It is no accident that the goal of LD 573 cannot be achieved simply through the passage of legislation, but would require an amendment to the Maine Constitution.   Here in Maine we should be exceptionally proud that our State Constitution is not as restrictive as those of some other states that burden the right to vote with various requirements that have the effect of limiting civic participation.   And it is exactly because the right to vote is as unburdened as it is by virtue of our State Constitution that we should proceed with the utmost care and caution lest we do anything to restrict it.
Finally, it should be noted that over the past few decades, there has been a broad national trend of adopting less restrictive disenfranchising provisions.  Since 1997, at least 23 states have implemented progressive reforms to their felon disenfranchisement policies to expand voting opportunities and release restrictions. 
Maine has always been a leader on voting rights, and there is no reason to change course. In 2011, Maine voters overwhelming supported restoration of same day voter registration at the polls. Legislation similar to LD 573 has been proposed several times since 1999, and it’s been rejected because it’s the wrong thing to do.  The Legislature should not amend the Constitution to restrict voting rights.