NAACP Spearheads Prison Vote Drive in Maine

Clarke Canfield, Comcast.net News, October 5. 2009

The NAACP is registering voters at prisons in Maine, one of just two states that allow all inmates to vote while behind bars, in what is apparently the nation’s first such statewide drive.

The relatively few votes at stake–only a few hundred–mean the drive’s potential to affect outcomes this fall on such issues as gay marriage, marijuana laws and tax limits is low.

Though prison inmates tend to skew to the Democratic side, the drive isn’t about furthering any political agenda, said Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“It’s about establishing strong voter patterns and becoming a fully functioning person to re-enter society,” Ross said. “It’s part of the rehabilitation and re-entry process.”

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It’s not focusing just on black inmates.

Volunteers already have registered an estimated 200 or more inmates at five of the state’s seven adult correctional centers. The Maine State Prison’s NAACP chapter–the only one of its kind in New England–has 70 members, many of them white, including the branch president, Ross said.

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State laws giving convicted felons the right to vote vary. About 5.3 million people nationwide are barred from voting because of criminal convictions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Only in Maine and Vermont are felons in state prisons allowed to cast ballots while serving their sentences. Those prisoners, however, still have to register to vote, something easier done on the outside.

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The effort now under way is the first time there’s been a systemwide initiative to register inmates across an entire state, Ross said. Benjamin Jealous, national NAACP president, was on hand last week as volunteers registered inmates at five correctional centers.

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