updated 10/11/2006 6:31:55 PM ET 2006-10-11T22:31:55

Almost 4 million Americans who have completed their prison terms remain unable to vote because of laws in most states that prevent them from doing so, according to a new report. But moves to restore those voting rights are spreading - even making the Nov. 7 ballot in Rhode Island.

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The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group supporting criminal justice reform, said in a report Wednesday that 16 states have expanded voting access for ex-convicts in the past 10 years, enabling more than 600,000 people to regain voting rights.

Most of the changes have been made by legislatures, including those in New Mexico and Nebraska, which repealed lifetime prohibitions on felons voting.

Move to restore voting rights
This Election Day, however, a statewide electorate will have a say for the first time on a measure specifically aimed at expanding such voting rights. Rhode Islanders will consider a proposed state constitutional amendment that would allow felons to vote upon release from prison; they currently cannot vote until completing probation and parole, as is the case in more than 30 states.

The measure is supported by a coalition of civic groups, as well as by Police Chief Dean Esserman of Providence, the state's largest city. Its opponents include Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, who argues that felons haven't fully paid their dues to society until they complete parole.

Ryan King, the Sentencing Project policy analyst who authored the new report, predicted the Rhode Island measure would pass, and contended that most Americans support voting rights for people who've served their sentences.

"A lot of citizens find this policy (of disenfranchisement) doesn't mesh with their vision of America, that every person should have the right to vote," King said in a telephone interview.

Politics of race
In some states, the debate over voting rights has been complicated by partisan skirmishing. A disproportionate number of disenfranchised felons are black - a generally pro-Democratic voting bloc - and there has been some debate over whether reforms would aid Democratic candidates.

However, King noted that some of the recent reform measures have been signed by Republican governors and enjoyed broad bipartisan backing.

According to his report, 5.3 million Americans will be unable to vote on Nov. 7 because of laws affecting felons. About 1.4 million are in prison, the rest have been released.

The report also said that, in 2004, roughly 1 in 12 African-Americans was disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, a rate nearly five times that of non-blacks.

U.S. felons most restricted in world
Only two states - Maine and Vermont - allow prison inmates to vote. In 36 states, felons on parole cannot vote, while 11 states have lifetime voting bans that affect at least some felons.

"Any reason for optimism on the policy front should be tempered by the reality that United States disenfranchisement laws remain some of the most restrictive in the world," King wrote in the report. "Continued momentum to expand voting rights is essential."

Among those who would benefit if the Rhode Island measure passes is Andres Idarraga, who served more than six years in prison for drug dealing and gun possession, and is now a student at Brown University studying literature and economics. Under the current law, he would not be able to vote until completing probation in 2037.

"But I want to make a difference now," he said in a campaign ad. "I need a voice."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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