Stealing their right to vote

May 28, 2009

Lee Wengraf examines a hidden scandal of American "democracy"--the disenfranchisement of millions of people for no other reason that that they were convicted of a crime.

IN NOVEMBER, American voters made history by electing the first African American president, a symbol of the promises long denied to those who fought in the civil rights' movement of the 1960s.

But the dreams of that struggle are far from fulfilled, and one need look no further than the ballot box to see why--an estimated 5.3 million Americans are legally barred from voting for no other reason than that they have been convicted of a felony. Nearly 4 million of these disenfranchised--around three of every four--are out of prison, but are still denied the right to vote, often for decades and sometimes for life.

Maine and Vermont are the only states where all prisoners and former prisoners can vote. Virginia and Kentucky are at the other end of the spectrum, permanently disenfranchising anyone with a felony conviction unless they receive a pardon from the governor. In eight other states--Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, Tennessee and Wyoming--prisoners convicted of certain crimes (usually murder and sex crimes) are barred for life. Other states restore voting rights upon release from prison, probation and parole, while others impose waiting periods before former prisoners can vote.

A man in Nevada holds up part of the paperwork he has filed in an effort to secure his right to vote
A man in Nevada holds up part of the paperwork he has filed in an effort to secure his right to vote

In all, 35 states ban the right to vote--in some form or another--to former prisoners even after they are out from behind bars.

People around the country and the world learned about voter disenfranchisement after the 2000 presidential election, when the fiasco in Florida allowed George W. Bush to steal the White House from the actual winner of the election, Al Gore.

Some 57,700 voters without a felony record--54 percent of them Black--along with 8,000 former prisoners who had the right to vote, were illegally purged from the voter rolls before the election.

"Al Gore would have picked up 60,000 additional votes in Florida, home to 1,088,667 ex-felons and 293,396 current felons in the fall of 2000," author Paul Street wrote on ZNet. "This was more than enough to have pre-empted the subsequent melodramas over 'hanging chads,' Jewish votes for Buchanan, butterfly ballots, and the role of Ralph Nader's third-party candidacy."

Even after these disgraceful facts came to light, however, Florida continues to maintain harsh restrictions on voting rights. Some former prisoners must wait 15 years after completing their sentence (during which they can't be convicted of any new crime) to apply for their voting rights to be restored without a hearing. Or they can petition the authorities directly for a review and in-person hearing.

As of the 2004 election, 1,179,687 people in Florida were barred from voting due to felony disenfranchisement; 293,545 of them, or one in every six, were African American. All told, 31 percent of African American men in Florida are disenfranchised.

Michael Hargrett, an African American former prisoner in Florida, knows what it takes to regain the right to vote.

After serving a four-year sentence that ended in 1997, he petitioned the state, with the help of the state ACLU. There were several years of interviews and investigations before he finally received a hearing before the Executive Clemency Board. "They thoroughly vetted me like I was interviewing to be an FBI agent," Hargrett recalled in a Sentencing Project publication.

Felony disenfranchisement mirrors the larger trends in voting and access to democracy--the U.S. denies a greater percentage of its population access to the vote than any other "democracy" in the world. According to Project Vote, the U.S. is the only country that permits permanent disenfranchisement of felons even after completion of their sentences.

But as the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University--author of numerous reports on this subject--has put it:

This disenfranchisement by law of millions of American citizens is only half the story. Across the country, there is persistent confusion among election officials about their state's felony disenfranchisement policies...which leads to the de facto disenfranchisement of untold hundreds of thousands of eligible would-be voters throughout the country.

THESE LAWS disenfranchising former prisoners are nothing short of a vestige of Jim Crow surviving to the modern day. As Erika Wood of the Brennan Center put it in an article for the Politico Web site:

There is no greater scourge on our country's moral standing than our history of slavery and its progeny of Jim Crow, mass imprisonment and disenfranchisement.

And make no mistake, America's felony disenfranchisement laws trace their roots straight back to Jim Crow. They were enacted alongside the notorious poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literacy tests. Targeted criminalization and felony disenfranchisement combined to create the legal loss of voting rights, usually for life, effectively suppressing the African-American vote for decades...

If current incarceration rates continue, three in 10 of the next generation of Black men will lose the right to vote at some point in their lives. In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40 percent of Black men may permanently lose their right to vote.

The racism inherent in this system of disenfranchisement echoes the inequality that runs through the entire criminal justice system. With just 5 percent of the world's population, America has nearly 25 percent of the world's reported prison population. And while only 12 percent of the U.S. population is African American, Blacks make up 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

There is another, insidious side to prisoner disenfranchisement--the way that political representation and public funding is determined by Census counting methods that do include local prison populations. As Tracy Huling wrote in Mother Jones of the 2000 Census:

The prisoner "share" of the nearly $2 trillion in federal funds tied to population counts distributed nationwide over the next decade will go to the mostly rural hometowns of their keepers. Moreover, even though prisoners in all but a few states can't vote, their numbers can affect how the lines are drawn and how political power is distributed. When the census count is used to draw legislative districts, prisoners will be re-apportioned to the largely rural (and Republican) areas hosting their prisons...

Add to that incentives such as those which private prison companies have offered to potential prison towns: home price guarantees (should the price of homes surrounding prisons be deflated); the building of vocational training institutes next to prisons; and criminal justice scholarships to local universities, to name just a few.

For example, according to the Brennan Center report "Incarcerated People and the Census," the prison-driven population increase drew an additional $120,700 to rural Virginia's Sussex County for primary and secondary education alone. However, urban Henrico County, which hosts no prisons but is home to many residents sent away to them, lost $292,900 in education funds.

In 2005, George W. Bush signed into law a requirement that the U.S. Census Bureau study the feasibility of counting people in prison using their pre-incarceration addresses rather than their prison addresses. Amazingly, the Census Bureau concluded the task would be too complex and unworkable.

Yet according to the Sentencing Project's "Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2008," public policy is out of step with public opinion. It reports that 8 in 10 Americans support voting rights for people who have completed their sentence, and nearly two-thirds support voting rights for people on probation or parole.

SOME OF this dissent has grown into sustained opposition, and grassroots organizing and advocacy efforts have translated into voter reforms for felons in 20 states over the past decade.

For example, a group called Justice Maryland launched its "Got Democracy, Maryland?" project, resulting in the restoration of voting rights to about half of those disenfranchised. According to Human Rights Watch, Maryland was one of four states in which Black men comprised more than half of all disenfranchised people.

In early May, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law the Voting Rights Restoration Act, eliminating the requirement that people coming out of the criminal justice system pay any fees, fines and restitution, including surcharges and interest, before being allowed to vote. "We have come to understand we can't create a debtor's prison here," Gregoire said.

Virginia and Kentucky--the two states barring all former prisoners from voting--have now eased restrictions, allowing some former felons to apply for restoration, which then have to be approved by the governor.

And in March, Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. John Conyers announced the Democracy Restoration Act of 2008, which would restore voting rights in federal elections to people with felony convictions who are out of prison.

Prisoners themselves have fought for voting rights from behind bars. In the case of Muntaqim v. Coombe et al, former Black Panther Jalil Abdul Muntaqim sued the New York State prison system. Citing the vastly disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic inmates, Muntaqim wrote that state voting laws violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But a federal appeals court turned down his case, claiming the "absence of findings that disenfranchisement laws were a tool of discrimination."

The crisis in U.S. prisons today--with an exploding prison population of 2.3 million--has been intensified by the economic crisis and unsustainable prison budgets. Nationally, 31 states reported a total budget gap of nearly $30 billion in December 2008, which has helped drive politicians, in spite of their tough-on-crime instincts, towards reforms such as drug treatment centers and other alternatives to incarceration.

Calling U.S. prisons a "national disgrace," Virginia Sen. Jim Webb has called for a National Criminal Justice Commission to investigate prison reform. And in April 2009, New York state made high-profile changes to its infamous Rockefeller drug laws, which had set the tone for decades of harsh, mandatory minimum sentencing.

This climate of change is welcome, but there is much, much further to go. The logic of decades of "law and order" prison-building policies is unparalleled brutality and injustice, which has devastated the lives of millions. Raising the call for equal voting rights for all--behind bars or on the outside--must be a demand of a new civil rights movement that challenges America's incarceration nation.

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