I’m thinking, as I’m sure you all are, about the election. Hard, in fact, to think about anything else today. This much we know. It’s rigged, though not as one prospective sore loser has said.
We’re familiar by now with the barriers states have erected, especially since the Supreme Court hobbled enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
But here’s an old one that will prevent an estimated 6.1 million U.S. citizens from voting tomorrow — state laws that disenfranchise people who’ve been convicted of felonies. More than three-quarters of them have fully paid their “debt to society.”
Like the voter ID laws, the contraction of early voting periods and the like, the felon disenfranchisement laws deny voting rights to a far higher percent of blacks than citizens of other races.
Roughly four times as many, the Sentencing Project reports — or roughly one in thirteen, as compared to one in fifty-six. And like the other laws and practices, the most exclusionary are in Southern states.
Florida and Virginia, which pundits have viewed as swing states during this Presidential election cycle, bar more than one in five blacks from voting because of a felony conviction.
The top four states all have Republican-controlled legislatures. And all but one — Virginia — have Republican governors too.
Virginia’s governor recently moved to restore voting rights to all former felons who were no longer on probation or parole. Blocked by a court after the Republican House and Senate leaders, joined by four other voters sued.
Do we detect a partisan interest in the felon disenfranchisement laws? For sure. But the laws are rooted in racism, as The New York Times editorial board explains.
Briefly, the harshest laws date back to the days when Southern states sought to prevent blacks from exercising the voting rights granted by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.
The laws prohibiting felons from voting were an early and common way to avert “the menace of Negro domination,” as the candid president of Alabama’s constitutional convention put it. States, of course, doubled down with poll taxes, literacy tests and other formidably challenging requirements.
Fast forward to the late 1960s. A number of states began to pare back their felon disenfranchisement laws. Yet the number of ex-felons denied the right to vote grew — from fewer than 1.8 million in 1976 to the projected 6.1 million.
The rate of black disenfranchisement due to felony convictions has grown accordingly. In 1980, laws in only two states barred more than 10% — neither, incidentally, in the South. Today, laws in nine do.
We all know what accounts for this — our war on crime, especially drug-related crimes, including mere possession and petty dealing. Nearly 40% of people behind bars for drug law violations are blacks, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
We can’t, I think, attribute the glaring difference in incarceration rates entirely — or even mostly — to race discrimination in courtrooms, though we can’t rule that out either.
Police forces generally don’t patrol well-off neighborhoods, looking for people taking a toke or selling a bag. And those who live there — mostly whites — usually don’t sell drugs on street corners anyway, as Christopher Ingraham at Wonkblog points out.
If well-off people do get arrested, they’ll have lawyers to negotiate plea bargains so as to reduce the offense they’re charged with to a misdemeanor — or to mount vigorous defenses.
Poor and near-poor people must rely on public defenders, who’ve got far too many clients to represent as effectively as the right to counsel requires.
Even if well-off people are convicted of a felony, they’ll have the money to pay the fines and fees that courts often levy. Doing that is frequently required to end a period of probation or parole.
And that will restore voting rights to ex-felons in 18 states, assuming they’ve satisfied all other conditions. But dozen impose lifetime bans on at least some people ever convicted of any felony.
So a middle-aged black man in Florida who’s been active in Democratic politics recently learned he can’t vote because of a petty drug crime he committed 30 years ago. “I don’t have a voice,” he says. “I’m like an anonymous person.”
He, no longer anonymous, represents a very large number of Americans who’ll have no voice in decisions that will powerfully affect their lives — and ours.
An injustice piled on top of injustices that go along way to explaining why they lack a right many of us still take for granted, legal and possibly illegal voter suppressions notwithstanding.