As Americans honor those who fought for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, 50 years ago, it’s easy to forget that 5.9 million citizens — 2.2 million of them African-Americans — remain disenfranchised today. One out of every 13 African-Americans is prohibited from casting a ballot in the United States.
These men and women lost their right to vote because of felony convictions. Depending on the laws in their states, some may regain access to the polls when they complete their prison sentences, finish parole, or complete probation, but those in Kentucky, Florida and Iowa will be disenfranchised for the rest of their lives. (Only two states — Maine and Vermont — allow those currently in prison on felony charges to vote, and eight states even ban inmates with misdemeanors.)
Most of those affected by these voting restrictions — 75 percent — have already done their time and returned to the community.
The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch say these laws have “no discernible legitimate purpose,” and criticize the purported goals of preventing voter fraud and preserving the sanctity of the ballot box as “anachronistic.” Nor has disenfranchisement been shown to act as a crime deterrent; in fact, voting is negatively correlated with recidivism.
“You’ve done your time in prison, now you’re living in the community,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. “You’re expected to abide by the rules of society, pay your taxes, get a job… It’s counter-productive to the community at large for us to essentially be treating people as second-class citizens.”
Thanks to a steady push from advocates, since 1997 at least 23 states have eased their voting restrictions. Last Monday, the Maryland Senate passed a bill that would restore voting rights immediately after release from prison. The bill’s sponsor in the House, where it heads next, is Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City), who has a personal connection to the issue: as a teen, the assemblyman was arrested and jailed multiple times for drug dealing.
McCray told The Washington Post that Maryland’s disenfranchisement of people on parole and probation “doesn’t make sense. The debt has been paid.”
A similar bill affecting those who have completed prison sentences passed the Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee last month. Marc Mauer is optimistic that both the Maryland and Minnesota bills could pass in the coming months.
Grassroots efforts to reform voting restrictions are growing in other states, including Kentucky, where both houses passed legislation year but were ultimately unable to agree on a final bill, as well as Iowa and Florida. Widely regarded as the worst state for felon voting rights, Florida has nearly three times more disenfranchised ex-felons than Texas, the second-highest state.
US Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have also introduced federal legislation that would allow ex-felons to vote in federal elections, regardless of state laws.
Felon disenfranchisement was built into the American Constitution (along with disenfranchisement of women and people of color), but the harshest state restrictions were enacted after the Civil War, along with other Jim Crow measures like poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses that allowed whites to skip the tests and taxes.
Thanks to racial disparities in incarceration and sentencing, felon disenfranchisement laws continue to keep minorities from the polls. Nationwide, more than one in eight voting-aged black men were ineligible to cast a vote in the 2014 election, and in three states, more than one in five African-Americans cannot vote. What’s more, as the US prison population increased over recent decades (and sentencing got tougher, classifying more non-violent offenders as felons), the total number of inmates and ex-felons without the right to vote skyrocketed from 1.2 million in 1980 to its current 5.9 million.
The consequences of all this disenfranchisement are real, not only for individual ex-felons, but for the nation as a whole. Communities with high numbers of ex-felons lose their voices at the polls, and voting restrictions can have a measurable effect even on national political elections. A study published by the American Sociological Association determined that ex-felon enfranchisement in Florida alone would “certainly” have pushed Al Gore to presidential victory in 2000.
Our nation’s confusing patchwork of voting restrictions also means that “people with felony convictions and the electoral officials themselves are often misinformed about the policy,” says the Sentencing Project’s Mauer. “There may be substantially more people who are kept away from the ballot box than even [the current] legal prohibitions would require.”
“Even if you’re sitting in a maximum security prison cell, you can still get married or divorced, you can buy yourself property, you have basic First Amendment rights,” says Mauer. “We generally make a distinction between your rights as a citizen and the punishment for your crime. I think this really confuses what are legitimate sanctions.
“Even if it was one person that was excluded, it would raise serious questions about what we mean by democracy.”