A progressive guide to ballot questions

Voters can back affordable housing and voting for Freed Felons
By MATTHEW JERZYK  |  October 25, 2006

In December 2001, the Reverend Duane Clinker and three other ministers were arrested at the State House while protesting growing homelessness and cuts to funding for affordable housing. Five years later, housing advocates and community activists are backing Question 9 on the November 7 ballot, which could create a $50 million bond to build affordable housing statewide.

Nine questions will be put before voters on Election Day, but Question 9 and QUESTION 2, which could allow felons to vote upon their release from prison, are the ones — besides Question 1, about the casino — getting the most interest from progressives. The other seven questions are discussed deeper in this article.

The shortage of affordable housing is real for every class of Rhode Islanders: poor people, low-income renters, and homeowners. According to the HousingWorksRI advocacy coalition, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1147 and rising. Rhode Island, meanwhile, lags at the bottom of homeownership statistics, ranking 47th nationally.

The coming together in recent years of HousingWorksRI (www.housingworksri.org), which includes much of the local establishment, shows how the state’s affordable housing crisis has come to be seen as an economic-competitiveness issue. As Ari Matusiak, who directs the coalition, says, “This bond helps Rhode Islanders all over the state — hourly wage workers, seniors on fixed incomes, and young families just starting out. It will revitalize our communities by building new homes and putting more properties back on the tax rolls and will make it easier for businesses to attract and keep workers. It’s an investment in our future.”

In terms of Question 2, Rhode Island currently disenfranchises a greater share of its residents than any other state in New England. More than 15,000 Rhode Island citizens cannot vote due to a felony conviction. Even more troubling is how one in five black men and one in 11 Latino men are barred from voting statewide. 

For this very reason, right to vote campaigns have emerged in states around the nation, including the one in Rhode Island (www.restorethevote.org). It’s not hard to see why, considering how felony disenfranchisement laws have disproportionately impacted people of color, from the moment of arrest through sentencing in court.

Question 2’s supporters include such varied voices as US Representatives Patrick Kennedy and Jim Langevin; Senator Lincoln Chafee, and his opponent, Sheldon Whitehouse; Providence Mayor David Cicilline and Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman; Common Cause of Rhode Island; the RI ACLU; the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, the RI Latino Political Action Committee; the RI AFL-CIO; and the RI State Council of Churches.

The Restore The Vote campaign in Rhode Island is directed by Jeffrey Williams, pastor at the Cathedral of Life Christian Assembly. He says progressives should support the effort, because “as a community encourages the full participation of all, the entire community becomes stronger, healthier and vibrant. To do anything less is immoral, irresponsible and nearsighted . . . Restoring the right to vote is an inexpensive treatment for a curable disease.”

Brown University student Andres Idarraga is one person who could benefit from passage of this ballot question. Early in his life, he got involved in drug dealing and spent more than six years in prison. Now 28, Idarraga believes that becoming involved in the political system is an important part of rehabilitation.

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