Another Threat to Democracy: 'Go to Jail, Lose Your Vote'

SOURCE: Flickr/Still Burning

Nearly one in every 13 African-Americans is deprived of his right to vote thanks to laws restricting how those convicted of crimes can participate in democracy.

Currently, states decide when to reinstate a felon’s voting rights. In 48 states, prisoners are prohibited from voting; in 29 states, felons may not vote even during probation; and in 4 states, the governor holds sold discretion on when the formerly-incarcerated will be able to participate in democracy again (The National Conference of State Legislatures has a detailed chart of Felon Voting Laws can be found at felonvoting.procon.org).

This summer in Florida, one of the four states with the strictest felon voting laws, Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) increased disenfranchisement measures by repealing former governor Charlie Crist’s (R-Fla.) changes to the state’s voting policy. Crist had amended the policy so that voting rights were automatically reinstated upon completion of sentence and probation. Now, ex-felons must wait five years before even applying to regain voting rights.

In Alabama, those convicted of certain felony offenses such as murder, rape, and treason are never again eligible to vote. In January 2011, Iowa rescinded a law that automatically reinstated voting rights to felons, forcing them to endure the application process after completing their sentence and probation. Even in DC, election-, lobbying-, and campaign-related crimes that usually classify as misdemeanors are defined as felonies for sole purposes of disenfranchisement, taking away the individual’s right to vote absentee while in prison.

These state policies changes affect such a large population of would-be voters that the fight to reinstate ex-felon voting is now considered a contemporary civil rights movement.

The Sentencing Project released a new study highlighting the 5.85 million voters who were denied voting privileges in 2010 because they were either current or former felons. Of those affected by restricting voting laws, a disproportionate number are African-American and other minorities, an obvious reflection of the legal system’s racially biased injustice toward minorities. According to The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, though the United States has made progress toward civil rights equality, racial equality in the criminal justice system is actually regressing.

The Center For American Progress, our parent organization, finds that restricting felon voting laws strips 13 percent of African American men of their right to vote, as 1 in every 15 black men is incarcerated—compared to 1 in every 106 white men. In the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, even just 1 percent of disenfranchised felon votes would have been enough to swing the election, according to Sasha Abramsky’s novel Conned.

The Nation finds that nationwide, about 2 percent of non-African Americans have lost their right to vote compared to 8 percent of African-Americans. And Think Progress, our sister publication, reports that while minorities comprise 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of prison inmates. They write: “With more black men under the control of corrections departments than were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War, mass incarnation is the biggest civil rights issue of our time.”

After a non-violent drug offense in 1990, Florida resident Vikki Hankins, who will not legally be allowed to vote until 2017, said: “The ulterior motive, in my opinion, is to shut out the black and Democratic vote…that’s the bottom line.”

According to a landmark article, “Democratic Contraction? Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States,” which documents the nationwide prevalence of disenfranchisement, “almost 70 percent of the felon voters would have selected the Democratic candidate,” and activists are calling mass incarceration the “New Jim Crow.”  After reviewing statistics, voting rights for those incarcerated and serving parole sentences is more than an issue of voter suppression but also of politics and racial prejudice.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a national organization advocating civil rights, is lobbying for the Democracy Restoration Act which would standardize federal election voting and allow former convicts to vote if they are no longer incarcerated. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have seen the Democracy Restoration Act but no hearings are scheduled.

Last month, the NAACP launched a campaign against national felony disenfranchisement, advocating for the restoration of voting rights for formerly convicted felons. The campaign reports that of the 6 million Americans disenfranchised because of felony charges, 4.4 million of those potential voters are no longer incarcerated. The NAACP’s campaign is organizing panel hearings, online petitions, and field organizing at local NAACP chapters and on college campuses. The website reads: They made mistakes. They did their time. They deserve to vote.



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