Felon Disenfranchisement as Voter Suppression

Authored by: Diana Tomezsko and Mary Grayson Batts

This month marks one year since the Charlottesville riots thrust into the national spotlight the pernicious racism that abounds and resurgence of white supremacism in America.

Over the past five years, we have witnessed the toll that this racism and white supremacism has been taking on voting rights. Throughout the country, newly implemented voter suppression measures are being wielded as apparatuses of institutional racism.  As would be expected, many of the mechanisms for voter suppression have been passed in places with a history of discrimination so entrenched that they were required to obtain pre-clearance for voting procedure changes under the Voting Rights Act until it was eviscerated by the Supreme Court in 2013.

But there are also long-established voter suppression tools rooted in white supremacy that are brutally effective, including the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans with felony convictions.  Grassroots efforts are underway to restore these voting rights for some, and we cannot allow racism and the resurgence of white supremacism to derail this cause.

In some states today, over 20 percent of black adults are disenfranchised for life. Michelle Alexander notes in her book The New Jim Crow that “more [black men] are disenfranchised today than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified”. This is no accident. In many states, Jim Crow-era laws that were initially designed to limit the black electorate are still in effect; combined with a modern explosion of Drug War felony convictions, they serve to disenfranchise millions of US citizens. Most of the disenfranchised voters are not currently incarcerated. Most are citizens who have served their time and returned to their communities.

After the Civil War during Reconstruction, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed to guarantee black men the right to vote. (All women, including black women, would have to wait fifty more years for the Nineteenth Amendment to include them in the franchise.) However, the prospect of this newly minted black electorate exercising its power was terrifying for many white Southern leaders. Many strategies were adopted during the post-Reconstruction decades, commonly known as the “Jim Crow” era, to limit the black electorate. One of these tactics was the disenfranchisement of those convicted of felonies.

Disenfranchising citizens convicted of serious crimes was nothing new at the time. Drawing on European models, provisions disenfranchising some criminals were included in some early American state constitutions. But during the Jim Crow era, the practice was expanded and tailored to limit black citizens’ eligibility to vote.

While it would be clearly illegal for any law to explicitly target black voters for disenfranchisement, legislators in the Jim Crow era tailored their felon disenfranchisement provisions to appear race-neutral but nevertheless achieve a discriminatory impact. These lawmakers weren’t exactly sneaky about their discriminatory goals; in fact, they often proudly stated their racist intentions. R.L. Gordon, a delegate to Virginia’s 1901 Constitutional Convention, declared his goal “to disenfranchise every negro that I could disenfranchise under the Constitution of the United States, and as few white people as possible”. Another delegate (and future U.S. Senator) Carter Glass, who drafted Virginia’s suffrage article, explained that it “does not necessarily deprive a single white man of the ballot, but will inevitably cut from the existing electorate four-fifths of the negro voters. That was the purpose of this convention; that will be its achievement.”

To achieve these goals, some state legislators enumerated offenses thought to be more often committed by black people, such as theft or other domestic offenses, and left out more violent offenses thought to be mostly perpetrated by whites. John Field Bunting, who introduced the disenfranchisement ordinance at Alabama’s 1901 Constitutional Convention, shared his theory that “the crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify sixty percent of the Negroes”.

Inversely, some states used deliberately vague language in their disenfranchisement provisions. Phrases like “moral turpitude” (Alabama) or “infamous crimes” (Iowa) avoided defining specific offenses that disqualified convicts from voting, instead leaving the scope of the law up to the often-abused discretion of local officials. Just last year, Alabama finally clarified the definition of “moral turpitude”; this new law alone has the potential to re-enfranchise thousands of Alabamians. In other states like Iowa, which disenfranchises those convicted of “infamous crimes” but doesn’t specify which offenses are included, potential voters are still left in limbo.

Today, the Sentencing Project estimates that 6.1 million Americans are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. That number has risen from 1.17 million in 1976. Exploding totals of arrests and convictions resulting from “Drug War” policies have, in turn, multiplied the number of citizens who are forbidden to vote due to those convictions. This reality has had an outsized impact on the black community. The Sentencing Project found that nationwide, “one in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans”.

Many states have liberalized their disenfranchisement provisions in recent decades, but four states — Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia — remain outliers, barring those with felony convictions from voting for the rest of their lives, with restoration only possible through individual executive clemency. A total of twelve states restrict or remove voting rights after a sentence has ended — meaning after completion of incarceration, probation, and/or parole. Because of these policies, about half of all disenfranchised citizens are completely post-sentence, and only about 22% of the disenfranchised are actually incarcerated. The vast majority of Americans denied the franchise due to felony convictions are not in prison but are living and working in their communities. The disproportionate impact on the black community is hard to overestimate. In Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, over 20% of adult voting-age African Americans are disenfranchised. Put another way, in three states in America, more than one in five adult African Americans are barred for life from voting.

These statistics are staggering and disheartening. But there is some hope. In 2016, then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe undertook a massive restoration effort after a sweeping executive order was blocked by a court, instead using an autopen to sign restoration papers individually for nearly 200,000 Virginians. One Virginian who voted for the first time in 2017 after having her rights restored by McAuliffe described the experience with elation: “I now felt like a citizen. I now felt like I will make a difference in some kind of way. Just bubbling in them little circles, it’s like power, it’s power.”

In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York signed an executive order restoring voting rights to parolees in that state. The move, a sidestep of the state legislature akin to McAuliffe’s, restored the voting rights of more than 35,000 New Yorkers.

In Florida this November, Amendment 4, known as the Voting Restoration Amendment, will be on the ballot. If it passes, voting rights will be restored automatically for most felons once their sentence is completed. Grassroots activists there worked diligently to collect enough petition signatures for the measure to appear on the ballot, and they now campaign for its passage this November. To learn more about the amendment or get involved, visit Second Chances Florida.

The disenfranchisement of felons is a tradition rooted in white supremacy, and it is a national disgrace that should be abolished. The efforts underway to restore voting rights for some of the disenfranchised come at a precarious time — a time when white supremacy has been making a dangerous resurgence in America.  We must ensure that progress is not stymied by this growing threat. Restoring the voting rights of felons deserves the support of voting rights advocates everywhere.

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