Prisoners and the Right to Vote

Whether they exercised it in the fall elections or not, most citizens of the United States took it for granted that they had the right to cast a vote on Nov. 5. But for close to four million people with felony convictions, no such right existed, because almost all states have disenfranchisement laws. Laws of this kind can affect not only those who are behind bars, but even men and women on parole and probation.



Nor does the completion of a sentence necessarily mean that former felons can again vote. A report by the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch shows that eight states deny this right to all ex-offenders. As Marc Mauer, the assistant director of the project, told America, such stripping of a fundamental right amounts to double punishment for those who have served their time. This additional punishment, the report notes, represents the vestiges of medieval times, when offenders suffered “civil death”—the deprivation of virtually all rights—in an effort to cut them off from society. English colonists brought aspects of this concept with them to North America, and they remain in the disenfranchisement law of many states.

African-American men have been disproportionately affected by these laws. Of the nearly four million people who are disenfranchised permanently or for set periods of time, almost one third (1.4 million) are black men—a rate that, according to the report, is seven times the national average. The total number amounts to 13 percent of all black males. In six states, one in four are disenfranchised for the rest of their lives. The report also predicts that at the current rate of incarceration, three out of every 10 black men will probably be disenfranchised at some point in their lives. The racial implications of disenfranchisement on such a massive scale echo in an unsavory manner the deliberate policies of racial exclusion that prevailed in the South after the Civil War, when legislators there introduced the poll tax and literacy requirements.

The increase in the number of disenfranchised people is largely the result of the expansion of the criminal justice system over the past three decades, especially in regard to the war on drugs. Arrest policies targeting inner-city communities (in contrast to the treatment approach common in well-off neighborhoods) have had a particularly heavy impact on blacks and Latinos, who make up the majority of drug offenders in state prisons.

Florida is one of the most restrictive states. Besides those who are actually serving sentences behind bars, ex-felons and others on probation or parole are also excluded from voting. Although it is not known exactly how many were unable to vote in this past election, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has estimated that at least 200,000 were excluded from taking part in the 2000 presidential election. Outside advocates set the number at 400,000. Since the Florida election that year was won by a margin of only 500 votes, the national implications of so large a number of disenfranchised Floridians can hardly be overlooked.

Nor are the crimes for which Americans lose the right to vote necessarily the most serious. The crime could even be shoplifting (à la Winona Ryder). Mr. Mauer gave the example of Virginia. If a prosecutor there chooses to charge a shoplifting offender with a felony rather than a misdemeanor, he said, an 18-year-old convicted and sentenced to probation would lose the right to vote for life. While it is true that the governor could restore that right, most convicted felons do not know how to proceed with such a complicated process. Alabama has an especially cumbersome procedure. Besides seeking a pardon from the Board of Pardons and Parole, ex-felons wishing to regain the right to vote must also provide the state with DNA samples.

On the more positive side of the picture, some states have made improvements over the past few years in the area of voter restoration. Last spring, Connecticut enacted a law that allows offenders on probation with felony convictions to vote. As a result, the report says, some 36,000 are now eligible to do so. Delaware, too, has taken a step in the same direction. Two years ago, its General Assembly—which had previously imposed a permanent voting ban for all felons—passed an amendment that restores voting rights to some of them five years after serving their sentences. Maryland and New Mexico have also taken steps of this kind, and in Pennsylvania a court has struck down a ban that applies to certain ex-felons. Exercised or not, the right to vote is among the most fundamental of human rights. Those on probation and parole and those who have served their time in prison should not be deprived of this right as they struggle to reintegrate themselves into the community.

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