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September 17, 2004 - The New York Times

How Denying the Vote to Ex-Offenders Undermines Democracy

By Brent Staples

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Pundits blame apathy for the decline in voter turnout that has become a fact of life in the United States in the last several decades. But not everyone who skips the polls on Election Day does so by choice. This November, for example, an estimated five million people - roughly 2.3 percent of the number of people eligible to vote - will be barred from voting by state laws that strip convicted felons of the franchise, often temporarily but sometimes for life.

These laws cast a permanent shadow over the poor minority communities where disenfranchised people typically live. Children grow up with the unfortunate example of neighbors, parents and grandparents who never vote and never engage in the political process, even superficially.

As a consequence, the struggling communities that need political leadership most of all are trapped within a posture of disengagement that deepens from one generation to the next.

While many things will need to change before the country can reinvigorate the electorate, doing away with post-prison sanctions - the most punitive in the democratic world - has to be near the top of the list.

The case for doing so has recently been laid out in a deluge of lawsuits, reports and studies that document the corrosive effects of disenfranchisement on the civic life of this country.

The most startling of these studies, published by Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza at Northwestern University, shows that the number of people touched by these laws far exceeds the five or so million who have officially and directly lost the right to vote.

For starters, hundreds of thousands of people who are still eligible to vote will not do so this year because they will be locked up in local jails, awaiting processing or trials for minor offenses.

An even larger group of eligible voters, numbering perhaps in the millions, may stay away from the polls because they are confused by the law and mistakenly believe that they have lost the right to vote.

Republican operatives have deliberated used scare tactics with this group of voters - most of them Democrats - in the hope of keeping them home on Election Day. Taken together, the truly disenfranchised, who are actually barred from voting under the law, and the de facto disenfranchised, who don't vote because they are confused about the law, could account for 5 percent of the voting-age population.

A vast majority of the disenfranchised in this country would meet the qualifications for voting if they were citizens of Britain, France, Germany or Australia. Indeed, many nations value the franchise so much that they arrange for people to vote even from prison.

Why does America treat convicted felons so much worse than other democracies? Legal scholars attribute the problem to this country's difficulties with race.

In particular, they cite the racist backlash in the South during Reconstruction, when former slaveowners were forced to endure the sight of former slaves' lining up to vote at polling places and actually holding seats in state legislatures.

Led by Mississippi, the Southern states eventually adopted a series of measures that wrote black citizens right out of the state constitutions. New statutes barred black Americans from the ballot box with poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and laws that took the vote away from people who committed certain crimes.

The crimes were carefully selected so they would affect the maximum number of black Americans while exempting as many whites as possible. For example, new state laws sometimes disenfranchised people for petty theft, minor swindling and wife-beating - crimes that were more likely to be prosecuted among blacks - while omitting murder and robbery. The legislative intent relied heavily on the unequal enforcement of the law.

The disenfranchisement campaign swept black Americans from elected office and knocked them off the voting rolls. There were suddenly counties in the South where black people outnumbered their white neighbors by four to one but where not a single black name could be found on the voting rolls.

Black people who fled the South found that the states in the North had also begun to adopt disenfranchisement laws as their black populations grew.

This shameful legacy is plainly visible today in statistics showing that black people represent 40 percent of the disenfranchisement cases but only about 12 percent of the national population. The broader community, which was once indifferent to this problem, has begun to take notice since the states have embraced new sentencing policies that transform drug misdemeanors into felonies, driving up the prison population sevenfold, to an eye-popping 1.4 million today from a mere 200,000 in the 1970's.

With the population of ex-felons at more than 13 million and growing, the country has no choice but to revisit laws that strip people of the right to vote while permanently consigning them to the margins of society.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats are rushing to associate themselves with a campaign to restore the vote to former felons. The general public, however, understands clearly that the right to vote is a basic human right. Restoring voting rights to former felons would move the United States closer to its peers in the democratic world - and closer to its founding ideals. It would also drive a stake through one of the last relics of an ugly racist past.

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