Millions Of Disenfranchised, Disproportionately Black
You know who certainly won't be voting, this November? Millions of people who would like to vote, but who won't be allowed to vote. A disproportionate number of them African Americans. Because they were convicted of felonies. And despite their having paid their debts to society. The NYU Law School's Brennan Center explains:
5.3 million American citizens are not allowed to vote because of a criminal conviction. As many as 4 million of these people live, work, and raise families in our communities, but because of a conviction in their past they are still denied the right to vote.
Felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States are deeply rooted in the troubled history of American race relations, and the disproportionate racial impact of these laws continues to this day. Nationwide, 13% of African-American men have lost the right to vote, a rate that is seven times the national average. Given current rates of incarceration, three in ten of the next generation of African-American men across the country can expect to lose the right to vote at some point in their lifetime.
Bans on the vote for ex-felons are rooted in historical and contemporary racism. These restrictions became popular in state law immediately after African-Americans gained the Constitutional right to vote. The number of states with laws preventing people with felony convictions from voting doubled in the years following the passage of the 15th Amendment which gave blacks access to the ballot . Then, as now, a race and class conscious criminal justice system ensured that blacks were charged and convicted of felony crimes at much higher rates than their white counter-parts.
The practice of denying the votes to ex-felons is still inextricably linked to race. States with the highest percentage of African-Americans frequently have the harshest disenfranchisement laws and those with the lowest black populations find the least need to bar felons from the polls. At the least restrictive end of the spectrum are Maine and Vermont which, respectively, have .04 and .03 percent African-American populations (compared to the national average of 12.1%) and happen to be the only two states that allow convicted felons to vote from prison.
And, of course, racial disparities in federal prosecutions is an institutional given.
Some states are taking the initiative to restore voting rights. Of course, in some states, those efforts take an insidious turn. In Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell, that misty-eyed champion of the glory days of the Confederacy, recently considered a proposel to have felons appeal to him, personally, in writing, to have their voting rights restored. Which is particularly creepy, given that Virginia has six times as many blacks in prison as whites, even though there are three-and-a-half times as many whites as blacks in the state, overall. Black people having to beg him for their rights. Must have reminded the governor of the good old days.
In the House of Representatives, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties is considering the Democracy Restoration Act (H.R. 3335). You can read the ACLU's statement of support here.
There is no good reason to deny former prisoners the vote. Once they are back in the community — paying taxes, working, raising families — they have the same concerns as other voters, and they should have the same say in who represents them.
Disenfranchisement laws also work against efforts to help released prisoners turn their lives around. Denying the vote to ex-offenders, who have paid their debt, continues to brand them as criminals, setting them apart from the society they should be rejoining.
Although elections are generally considered state matters, the federal government has a proud tradition of enacting laws, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when states wrongly deprive some of their citizens of the franchise. For reasons of both principle and sensible social policy, Congress should step in and give ex-offenders the right to vote.
Contact the House Judiciary Committee. Contact its members. Contact members of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. Tell them to support the Democracy Restoration Act (H.R. 3335). Tell them to end the largely racist disenfranchisement of millions Americans.