November’s midterm elections are approaching, but over five million Americans, in nearly all 50 states, will be denied the right to cast ballots. Why? Because they are current or prior felony offenders who cannot exercise a right guaranteed them in the Constitution. Two million of them have completed their sentence, so their punishment indirectly continues long after they have paid their debt to society. This unjust situation has attracted the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Meeting in Geneva last July, the committee held hearings to assess U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the voting issue emerged as an area of concern. The committee charged that U.S. disenfranchisement policies violate international law and disproportionately affect the rights of minority groups. According to the nonprofit Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., of the more than five million barred from voting, 13 percent are African-American men.
Disenfranchisement laws vary from state to state, and some go back over a century. Florida’s, for example, was put in place during the post-Civil War period, when laws like the poll tax were enacted to keep African-Americans from exercising equal rights with white citizens. Even now, 1 in 10 African-Americans there is ineligible to vote. Florida’s poor reputation for equity in the electoral process was underscored in the 2000 election, when thousands, falsely identified as felons, were erroneously purged from the list of eligible voters.
The number of disenfranchised people in the United States has jumped in the past three decades primarily because of a dramatic expansion of the criminal justice systeman expansion that has led to our having the world’s highest rate of incarceration. The so-called war on drugs, in particular, has resulted in sentencing practices that have caused more and more Americans to be barred from voting even after they have paid their debt to society. Most of the drug violations have been nonviolent, with charges like possession and small sales predominating. Of the 2.2 million men and women behind bars, 60 percent are black or Latino. Voting rights advocates point out that given the current rate of incarceration, 3 in 10 of the next generation of black men can be expected to be barred from voting at some point in their lifetimes.
It is true that disenfranchised former felons can petition to have their voting rights restored. The process, however, is often so complex that it can be all but impossible to follow, especially for persons of limited educational background. In Kentucky, for instance, those wishing to be re-enfranchised must submit a formal letter or essay explaining why these rights should be reinstated, together with three character references in letter form. Not surprisingly, the number of applications there has significantly declined since the process went into effect in 2004. Alabama’s archaic system highlights the vagueness of some states’ rules. Its disenfranchisement law bars prior felons from voting if their crime involved moral turpitude. This vagueness prompted an Alabama judge to require the state legislature to define the term. But as critics point out, such maneuvering simply sidesteps what lies at the heart of the problem, namely, the need to restore voting rights to all who have served their time.
Some progress is being made. Rhode Island citizens will vote on the re-enfranchisement issue in November. Iowa’s governor issued an executive order in 2005 that automatically restored the voting rights of all ex-felons, and Nebraska too has ended its lifetime disenfranchisement policies. But even states moving in a more constructive direction, like Tennessee, sometimes attach strings that can act as a deterrent to voting. That state’s new felon voting rights law now states that former felons can votebut only after they have paid restitution and child support payments. Some advocates have expressed concern that because of provisions like these, people in poor financial situations, especially members of minority groups, will continue to be barred from the polls.
Connecticut, too, has taken a step forward. Five years ago, a bill was signed into law that extends voting rights to people on probationas a result, more than 30,000 previously barred persons are now eligible to vote in November. But the very fact that such variations in voting laws exist in a country that supposedly treats all its citizens in an equitable manner suggests that evenhanded justice is far from present when it comes to voting rights. A recommendation made in 2001 by the National Commission on Federal Election Reformthat all states restore voting rights to persons who have completed their sentenceshas yet to be endorsed by all the states. Now is the time for states to give that endorsement.