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Wednesday, May 10th, 2006
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Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House

by Sasha Abramsky

Free at Last (But Still Disenfranchised)

A review by Anna Godbersen

It is an unfortunate contradiction: As the United States tries to spread democracy abroad, the democratic rights of its own citizens may not be in order. Such, anyway, is the argument of Sasha Abramsky's Conned, a cross-country treatise on the voting rights of felons. "We are becoming a country that boasts of its universal suffrage," he writes, "yet disenfranchises millions." Ground zero for scandal at the polls is still Florida, where, Abramsky argues, the half million felons who did not have the right to vote in 2000 could easily have changed the outcome of the presidential election that year. The story in Florida is similar to that in Washington and Nevada and Alabama: Confusion and Byzantine bureaucracies keep ex-prisoners who have served their time from exercising their rights at the polls. In some states, a complicated and expensive legal process leading to a gubernatorial pardon is required; in others, the callous misinformation of parole officers and state officials is the main obstacle keeping felons, who are technically allowed to vote, from doing so. Abramsky fills his book with the voices of these former prisoners, many of whom were convicted of nonviolent crimes, and they invariably describe a moving desire for civic participation. "I'm an adult and that's one of my rights," says one man, an army veteran convicted of a low-level drug crime, "My responsibility to be a part of society is missing."

Like many writers before him, Abramsky looks to Tocqueville for a guide, and this results in a lot of unnecessary scene setting on the Las Vegas strip and in meat-and-potatoes Iowa. Conned could have used a little more of the messy history of voting in this country, and a little less of the travelogue. Still, it is an alarming look at what the war on crime and war on drugs have wrought, and how the expansion of the prison population changes the meaning of American citizenship. This is also a story about race (one of the more alarming statistics Abramsky marshals is that 25 percent of black adult males in Virginia are voteless), and it is a frightening reminder that as a society we have not come nearly as far as we like to think.

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