5.85 million people, including 1 in every 13 Black persons, can’t vote. This sounds like some classic Civil Rights shit to me (and, in fact, this is vintage Jim Crow that just won’t stop), but somehow we’ve persisted with the idea that the right to vote is negotiable for people in prison or with a criminal record.
As the beautiful graphic (courtesy of the Sentencing Project) illustrates, the only states in the nation with no felony disenfranchisement laws also happen to be two of the three whitest states in the U.S. (they’re tied with New Hampshire, each 96% white). On the other end of the spectrum, in states with harsh disenfranchisement laws like Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia 1 in 5 Black men can’t vote.
Disenfranchisement is a huge problem for three reasons:
1. It presents a completely unnecessary barrier to successful reentry and sends the message – particularly in lifetime disenfranchisement states – that you’ll never be able to “do your time” and return to full citizenship. It’s just one more way that we set aside a group of people, predominantly poor, Black people, as “less-than” and call it something other than racism.
2. It delegitimizes our democracy. Our system of governance, flawed though it is, relies on the idea that if representatives aren’t doing their jobs “We the People” will vote them out. For the 2.5% of Americans who have been stripped of their voting rights, this premise is baseless.
3. It changes election outcomes. Based on voter demographics, at least 60–70% of the disenfranchised population would likely vote blue if they had the right to vote and acted on it. If Florida allowed people with felony convictions to vote at any time after conviction, Al Gore would have won Florida and, therefore, the presidency. And because many races are won on such tight margins, studies have predicted that without felony disenfranchisement at least 7 senatorial races since 1978 would have gone to democrats instead of republicans, likely giving democrats control of the senate through the 1990s (and preventing Mitch McConnell‘s election… sigh).
There’s a trickling tide toward reform in the works, including federal legislation proposed by Rand Paul that would give people convicted of non-violent felonies the right to vote after being released from probation or incarceration. It’s time to face up to the reality that these laws are the surviving party of the Jim Crow laws that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to wipe out and return this fundamental democratic right to all citizens.