It's Time for the U.S. to Stop Disenfranchising Felons of Their Voting Rights

Is it fair to penalize people over and over again for crimes, especially when they've already done their time?
Publish date:
March 15, 2016
racism, voting rights, voting, 2016 Election

Five states — and one commonwealth — are going to the polls today to express their opinions on the political process. Voters young and old alike will hopefully be turning out to exercise their civil rights, but there's one group of voting age adults who won't be hitting the polling place today: Felons and former felons. In all five states holding primaries today, there's some degree of felon disenfranchisement, a practice unique to the United States that deprived almost six million people of the right to vote during the 2014 midterms, and will likely affect even more this year.

The origins of felon disenfranchisement lie, like lots of other American law, in the English judicial system, but most Western democracies have turned away from the extreme forms of the practice seen in the U.S., extending voting rights to all adults with no allowance for a lifetime voting ban (and sometimes even mandating that all citizens vote).

Not so in the land of the free and the home of the brave. 48 states and the District of Columbia don't allow people to vote while they're incarcerated, and once people get out of prison, they may face a variety of voting restrictions up to not being allowed to vote again, ever, period, without successfully pleading their case for clemency.

Problems with the justice system entangle closely with felon disenfranchisement, as both are shot through with racism, and the decision to deprive convicted felons of their voting rights means that one in 13 Black Americans, mostly men, cannot vote. This disproportionate impact is so extreme that some critics believe it's actually enough to swing the outcome of elections — like the hotly contested Florida election in 2000 that landed George W. Bush the presidency after the Supreme Court handed down a favorable opinion. Subsequent conservative wins in Florida, incidentally, have led to an increase in crackdowns on felon voting rights, making it one of the most unfair states for ex-cons to live in.

1.5 million people will not be able to vote in Florida today, despite the fact that they are of voting age — one in four Black Florida residents can't vote and in fact will never be able to vote again.

Examining voting rights laws for states going to the polls today highlights some troubling and obvious truths about the way the United States handles its incarcerated population. In Florida, convicted felons are permanently barred from the polls unless they want to, and are able to, go through a lengthy process to restore their voting rights. Missouri, also voting today, doesn't allow felons, parolees, and probationees the right to vote, and neither does North Carolina. Illinois prisoners are not allowed to vote, but once they're released, they can register and resume their place in society. Ohio similarly restores voting rights after people leave prison.

You may notice some trends here, and they really come into stark display when looking at maps of voting rights: The worst felon disenfranchisement laws are heavily concentrated in the South. In fact, such laws were to some extent born in the South, though they were by no means restricted to the region, when furious white officials began casting about for ways to cut off the Black vote after the passage of the fifteenth amendment. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and Jim Crow laws arose to keep the Black community from voting and enforce segregation, and felon disenfranchisement came right along with them.

As we fight to eliminate the visual legacies and symbols of the Confederacy and other racist movements from our public spaces, we would do well to remember that racism has left a profound legal legacy as well, and it endures to this day. The United States has made some significant strides to address racist policy, but it hasn't eradicated the problem. While things like poll taxes may technically be illegal — though the ACLU and, for that matter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, correctly note that voter ID requirements can act in effect like a poll tax — numerous states still have laws on the books that directly limit civil rights for Black Americans. Felon disenfranchisement is a classic example of a racist policy that drew widespread support in a nation panicked at the thought of the Black vote that's lingered on the books ever since.

Thanks to an increasingly racialized climate paired with extreme attitudes about criminal justice, striking these laws down is quite challenging — it is not coincidental that support for these laws is most common among racists, conservative and liberal alike. Prison reform tends to move extremely slowly, and advocates are tackling a huge number of issues within the prison system, with voting rights being just once facet of an extremely complicated problem. Restoring voting rights to everyone should be intuitive and obvious — the fact that it's not speaks very poorly of the United States.

Proponents of the practice argue that prisoners forfeit certain civil rights by virtue of committing (and being convicted of) crimes — but this rings a bit hollow. Civil rights should be extended to all Americans in all situations, or they'd occupy a very perilous social state. The ability to revoke these rights at will creates dangerous precedents in addition to cultivating an environment where some, but not all, are free, and this doesn't mesh with stated American values.

The flimsy claim that it's necessary to deprive felons and ex-convicts of their voting rights is also difficult to stomach when it so clearly targets low-income people and racial minorities, particularly those lying at the intersection of these identities. People of color are heavily profiled by law enforcement in the United States, and when they survive police encounters to actually make it to court and face charges, many cannot afford high quality legal representation, while being confronted with prejudicial juries that carry stereotyped notions about race and crime into deliberations.

A disproportionate number of young Black men in particular — one million, almost half our current inmate population — are in prison in the United States, with Latinos rapidly catching up. Together, Black and Latino inmates make up 58 percent of the prison population, but around 30 percent of the country's population as a whole. By depriving felons of the right to vote, we perforce hit those populations hardest, and that's not a coincidence. It's part of a pattern of systemic injustices designed to perpetuate racial inequality in the United States. When people cannot vote, they have no voice in who represents them politically, and they cannot fairly participate in the initiative and referendum process. With so many people barred from the polling booth or caucus site, this isn't an academic issue of "a few votes," but a problem so serious that the outcome of state elections is actually being weighted in favor of a white majority.

Keeping felons away from the polls just serves as another form of punishment for a crime they've already done their time for, and it's another example of how felons are barred from fully participating in society. Many struggle to find work with felony convictions in their backgrounds, for example, and leave prison with few practical skills they can apply to the conventional job market. Former prisoners are also let out with few social supports, like counseling to help them get back on their feet. Even as incarceration rises in the United States, tearing communities apart and compounding systemic injustice, people who leave prison find themselves trapped in a revolving door, returning over and over again.

Civil rights intrinsically link people with society and provide them with a rooted sense of connection, as well as a buy-in for society in general. Felons deserve the right to vote just like everyone else, whether they're in prison or out, but for those who claim that felons are a drag on society, or aren't fully engaged with society, injustices like these illustrate why some ex-convicts feel like they're living in a world apart. We've effectively set them there, by making it impossible for them to participate in the political system, and in the process telling them that they aren't full citizens, with the rights, and responsibilities, that entails.

Photo: Maryland GovPics/Creative Commons