Thursday, February 18, 2010

Felon Disenfranchisement is UnAmerican

by Dr. Michael Fauntroy

“I don’t want everybody to vote.  Elections are not won by a majority of the people.  They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now.  As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
– Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, at a 1980 training session for Christian conservatives
    While there are a number of very worthy issues that need to be addressed in this area, I propose that we include the issue of felon disenfranchisement in our deliberations.  Felon disenfranchisement is critical as it impacts the outcomes of elections throughout the country.  Too often, conservative, anti-minority candidates are elected because of the disproportionate removal of African Americans and other minorities from the election rolls.  As the policies that disenfranchise felons disproportionately impacts African Americans (both those caught up in the criminal justice system AND the larger Black public which does not get the policies that it could because supportive people are not elected to office), we must understand it undermines the policies that we believe to be helpful to our community.
    The increase in felony convictions over the last generation or so has proven to be an effective way to lock out African American voters.  Between 1970 and 2000, the overall number of state and federal prisoners grew by over 600 percent, from fewer than 200,000 to nearly 1.4 million.  Nearly five million Americans, two percent of the voting-age population, are prohibited from voting as a result of felony convictions.  The laws that created these barriers are undemocratic and antithetical to American ideals, particularly in the case of those who have completed their sentences,  parole, or both, and have thus completely “paid their debt to society.”
    Racism is the root of felon disenfranchisement laws.  Conservatives created these laws in the post-Reconstruction era South in an effort keep African Americans out of the political process as they sought to “redeem” the South in the name of White supremacy.  Over  time, these laws spread nationwide and 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibited inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense; 36 states prohibit felons from voting while they are on parole; and 31 of these states exclude felony probationers as well.  Three states deny the right to vote to all ex-offenders who have completed their sentences.  As the GOP became the home of the conservative movement, Republicans all over the country have continually resisted efforts to overturn these scandalous, undemocratic laws.  They often argue that these laws are an appropriate supplement to the incarceration process.  The reality is that they understand the numbers which clearly indicate the GOP would have a much more difficult time winning elections around the country, particularly in the South.
    The impact of these laws on African American political participation has been profound.  According to the Sentencing Project, in its 2005 report Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States, more than 1.4 million African American men, or 13% of Black men, are disenfranchised, a rate seven times the national average; in six states that deny the vote to ex-offenders, 25 percent of Black men are permanently disenfranchised.  Given current incarceration rates, 30 percent of the next generation of Black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime.  In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40% of Black men may permanently lose their right to vote.  Ex-offenders who have completed their sentences comprise approximately 1.7 million disenfranchised people in the United States. 
    According to 2004 report by the People for the American Way/National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Suppression in America", Florida disenfranchised approximately 827,000 ex-felons for the 2000 presidential election.   That number is all the more stark when one consider that estimates of felon turnout range from a low of 20.5 percent (for the 1974 congressional elections) to a high of 39 percent (for the 1992 presidential election), with an average estimated felon turnout of about 24 percent in non-presidential year Senate elections and about 35 percent in presidential election years.  While well below general turnout rates, these estimates are enough to change electoral outcomes.  Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen, authors of "Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy", argue that the outcome of the 2000 presidential election “would almost certainly have been reversed had voting rights been extended to any category of disenfranchised felons.”  They concluded that Democratic nominee Al Gore would have one the popular vote by more than one million votes.  The disputed election in Florida reveals the impact felon disenfranchisement had on the 2000 contest.  Given estimated rates of turnout (27.2 percent) and preference (68.9 percent) for Florida incarcerates, Gore would have carried the state by 80,000 votes and, thereby, the presidency.  AND WE NEVER WOULD HAVE HAD GEORGE W. BUSH!!
I readily acknowledge that this is an issue that cannot be easily addressed at the federal level.  However, President Obama can use the bully pulpit of the White House to expose this issue to the public as well as its political and policy implications.

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