Election 2004  
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Suffering Suffrage

In some states, a young offender could finish probation, work and pay taxes, but never be able to vote again -- a clear instance of taxation without representation.
 
 
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While we're all focused on elections, can you guess which Californians are prohibited, by law, from voting? People you may not know: every prison inmate and former felon who is still on parole.

Few people realize that voting rights are left up to the states -- a legacy of the South's post-Civil War effort to prohibit newly freed slaves from voting.

California's voting laws, however, are relatively liberal compared to the 14 states that permanently bar ex-felons from voting and the 29 states that prevent criminals from voting while on probation. Only two states -- Maine and Vermont -- follow the European pattern of allowing all inmates and ex-convicts to vote.

You're probably thinking this has nothing to do with you. But you would be wrong. It could affect your troubled teenager. As New York defense attorney Andrew Shapiro has noted, "An 18-year-old first-time offender who trades a guilty plea for a nonprison sentence may unwittingly sacrifice forever his right to vote."

That's right: In some states, your child could finish probation, work and pay taxes, but never be able to vote again -- a clear instance of taxation without representation.

The people most affected by these laws, as you might suspect, are not white-collar criminals or suburban teenagers. In California, they are disproportionately African American and Hispanic men, part of the exploding population of people on parole for past drug crimes.

Nationally, almost 4.7 million adults are barred from voting. Of that number, 13 percent of African American men -- 1.4 million individuals -- are disenfranchised because they are in prison, on parole or on probation.

"This is not just a criminal justice issue, but one of basic democracy,'' said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, a nonprofit research organization on criminal justice.

We should never underestimate the impact of such widespread disenfranchisement on our electoral process. According to Human Rights Watch, Florida law -- which permanently denies the vote to ex-offenders -- prevented more than 400,000 people (including one-third of Florida's black men, or 200,000 residents) from casting a vote in the 2000 presidential election.

Human Rights Watch concluded "that the inability of these ex-offenders to vote had a significant impact on the number voting for Vice President Gore." Chris Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, found that if ex- convicts had been allowed to vote in the last presidential election, Gore would now be sitting in the White House.

We began this nation with the rather narrow view that only white men who owned property could vote. Since then, we have extended suffrage to all citizens, but not to former criminals.

These laws originated during one of our least glorious historical periods. Between 1890 and 1910, Southern states crafted criminal disenfranchisement laws -- along with literacy tests and poll taxes -- that made it nearly impossible for African Americans to wield any political power.

In 1901, Alabama lawmakers even inserted a provision in the state constitution that disenfranchised any person guilty of the felonious crime of "moral turpitude.'' (In the South, that could be attributed to a black man who directly spoke to a white woman.) The Alabama legislature declared that its goal was to establish and preserve white supremacy.

We are the heirs of this shameful legacy. We are also the only democratic society that indefinitely bars so many felons from re-entering society, endowed with the rights and responsibilities of their citizenship.

Widespread disenfranchisement in poor communities also tends to lower voter turnout in general. "The reason," Mauer told me, "is that there is little interest in elections when so many men cannot cast a vote. And that's not going to lower recidivism rates. We want parolees to be more -- not less -- connected to society and to assume the obligations of citizenship."

Politicians and strategists agree that the major parties refuse to address this blight on our democratic process. Republicans resist giving the vote to ex-convicts because they know they will lose political power. Democrats, for their part, have hesitated to take on the issue, for fear of appearing soft on crime and because former offenders don't contribute to their campaign coffers.

But denying the vote to an entire class of Americans is indefensible and profoundly undemocratic. Joe Loya, a disenfranchised felon, eloquently expressed this sentiment a few years ago:

"Without a vote, a voice, I am a ghost inhabiting a citizen's space. I want to walk calmly into a polling place with other citizens, to carry my placid ballot into the booth, check off my choices, then drop my conscience in the common box."

Hear his words. They may be the battle cry for the next struggle for universal suffrage.