The restoration of voting rights to felons is not an issue that concerns most citizens. And yet, the disenfranchisement of 5.3 million Americans has much bigger implications than hanging chads and butterfly ballots issues that commanded considerable attention after the 2000 presidential election.
With the November elections just around the corner and another presidential election not too far off, it's an issue worth examining. We are a country that prides itself on our democratic ideals, and yet, according to the Sentencing Project, one out of every 41 adults (one out of 12, if you're African American) is unable to vote because of a felony conviction. This ratio includes people in prison, those on probation or parole, and those who've completed their sentence but still remain disenfranchised. In some states, a single conviction for drug use, aggravated assault, or fraud is all it takes to permanently lose your right to vote. In the book Conned, by Sasha Abramsky, the author travels the country putting names and faces to this voteless underclass.
There's Dan, a 40-year-old from Washington who spent decades as an environmental and political activist. He was convicted of a felony after accidentally cutting his mother-in-law's finger as she tried to stop him from committing suicide. He was given two years probation and ordered to pay his mother-in-law's medical bills, assorted fines, and court fees. In order to get his voting rights restored, Dan must pay off his legal financial obligations, which are accumulating interest at 12 percent a year, and then wend his way through a bureaucratic maze that typically takes years.
And yet, the road to voter reenfranchisement in Washington is a cakewalk compared to many other states. In Mississippi, ex-felons convicted of certain crimes must get a local state representative or senator to sponsor a suffrage bill on their behalf. Abramsky tells of a Mississippi preacher who was charged with raping his aunt when he was 16. The aunt eventually recanted her testimony, admitting that the sex had been consensual. But the conviction was never formally overturned, and now, more than a decade later, the preacher is still barred from voting. A few years ago, he convinced a state representative to sponsor a bill for him. The bill passed both the house and the senate, only to land on the governor's desk where it was vetoed. So, like many other African Americans in Mississippi, where 28.6 percent of the state's African American male population remains disenfranchised, the preacher permanently lost the right to vote before he was old enough to vote in the first place.
In Kentucky, ex-felons seeking to restore their right to vote must provide three personal references and an essay addressed to the governor explaining how they had rehabilitated themselves and why they deserve to vote. Since most prisoners are undereducated or illiterate, the writing requirement is tantamount to a back-door literacy test. The state's disenfranchisement laws heavily affect African Americans who make up 40 percent of the prison population, though only seven percent of the state's population.
California is one of a handful of states that automatically restores the right to vote to ex-felons who have completed their prison sentence and parole term. But because of the vast prison system in this state, that still leaves more than 288,000 citizens currently voteless, of which almost half are black. Those numbers are high enough to significantly affect congressional and local elections in cities that have a disproportional number of incarcerated residents.
Abramsky makes a compelling case for the argument that disenfranchisement laws have replaced the poll tax, literacy test, and lynch mobs of the Jim Crow era as a means of preventing African Americans from voting en masse.
One need look no further than the presidential election of 2000 to see the effects of felony disenfranchisement. Bush won Florida and, subsequently, the election with a scant 537-vote margin. Things might have gone differently had 16 percent of African Americans in Florida not been disenfranchised, and had many more not been prevented from voting because of voting purge lists riddled with inaccuracies.
According to the Sentencing Project, 48 states restrict voting rights due to a felony conviction, and 11 states revoke voting rights permanently for all or some felonies. (Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote.) No other democracy practices such restrictive voting laws. Many democratic countries allow prisoners to vote, and most restore voting rights after a person has completed his or her sentence. And none permanently disenfranchise people.
While it's perhaps too much to ask the other 48 states to go the way of Maine and Vermont, we ought to at least commit to restoring the voting rights of released felons with the same speed and automaticity with which they are revoked in the first place.
Freelancer Shawna Galassi can be reached through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.