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SCSJ takes on new project targeting criminalization at the ballot box

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) is on a new mission to stop criminalization at the ballot box in time for the 2020 election.

North Carolina is, fittingly, where the idea was born, and the Durham-based non-profit held a national convening recently to announce its new work. The need to help those prosecuted for voting illegally — but often unknowingly — became apparent when 12 people were charged in Alamance County for casting a ballot in the 2016 presidential election.

SCSJ represented five of those 12 defendants, all of whom were on some form of felony probation or parole at the time they voted (note, it was discovered most of the 12 thought they had completed the process to have their voting rights restored).

“A lot of our clients say, ‘I didn’t know, nobody told me,'” said Mitchell Brown, an equal justice works fellow at SCSJ. “From the words of my client, ‘they’ll tell you about your fines and fees, but they’ll never tell you about your right to vote.'”

There were 441 people who voted in the 2016 election in North Carolina and found to be ineligible due to past felony convictions, although the majority of these people thought they had completed the process to have their voting rights reinstated, according to SCSJ. Cases are still ongoing in Hoke County, which you can read more about in this Guardian article, but criminalization at the ballot box is happening in more states than just North Carolina.

Participants at the national convening, titled “Navigating The Rise of Voter Prosecutions: Charting a Path of Resistance,” discussed the current state of voter prosecutions and how different groups could combat this scourge. The key discussion included important perspectives from defense lawyers, civil rights litigators and organizers. The convening also provided space for these various stakeholders to consider creative ways to challenge voter prosecutions and to develop a national data base to helps track, analyze and address efforts to criminalize voting.

“A growing number of states and local jurisdictions are criminally prosecuting people for voting while ineligible, but the vast majority of these individuals don’t know they are breaking the law,” said Allison Riggs, Chief Counsel, Voting Rights for the SCSJ. “Under the guise of protecting voting rights, state and local officials are aggressively pursuing even minor infractions. Instead of protecting the right to vote, this amounts to voter intimidation and makes eligible voters more wary about exercising that right.”

To help, SCSJ is creating a platform for collaboration among participants that will become a central repository of information for various stakeholders around the country. The use of legal authority to burden political participation has a historical lineage, a news release about it states, but given the directed use of power in the context of voter prosecutions, this project offers educational, advocacy, and litigation support to assure that the right to vote for all people is free from burden or intimidation.

“It’s important for people to know we are fighting voter suppression and it’s important they know we’re fighting for them,” Brown said.

When individuals are being prosecuted for minor infractions at the ballot box, it has greater consequences to communities and entire generations.

“What is the chilling effect of this?” Brown encouraged people to ask. He added that he has clients who tell their children not to vote because of the disenfranchisement they’ve experienced.

He expects the upcoming election will bring a barrage of voter suppression tactics out of the woodwork, but hopes the new project will be a resource for everyone trying to combat it. Part of the work of creating a repository of information begins with data collection. Brown encouraged anyone with information about ballot box prosecutions to reach out to him via email, MITCHELLBROWN@SCSJ.ORG.

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