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Political Invisibles

Remove the voting power of the urban poor, and issues of importance to inner-city America are likely to get ignored come Election Day.
What does it mean when a democracy removes the vote from several million adults? How is the political process affected when certain groups -- racial minorities and low-income whites, in particular -- bear the brunt of this disenfranchisement?

These are not abstract questions intended to tax the minds of students in a poli-sci class. Rather, they are questions about a massive contraction of the franchise that is occurring, today, largely in the shadows, in the United States.

Let me explain. Over the past quarter century, the number of incarcerated Americans and those with felony records has more than quadrupled, largely because of the ways in which drug wars have played out. The African American portion of the prison population has skyrocketed -- currently getting to the point where half of prisoners are black.

There are, in 2006, well over two million Americans living behind bars. If you pick up a felony, you automatically acquire a host of collateral handicaps. If it is a drug felony, you are ineligible for welfare and public housing in many states, you lose access to government loans, and depending on which state you happen to live in, you lose your political rights -- your ability to vote and to sit on juries.

In many states, especially those in the old South, picking up a felony means that you can never vote again, unless you complete the extraordinarily cumbersome and time-consuming process of applying for clemency.

In Florida, where nearly three-quarters of a million residents are currently disenfranchised, people who have finished their prison, parole and probation sentences and who want to vote have to fill out pages of questions, provide an array of detailed personal information, and submit an application for clemency to the clemency board, which then makes recommendations to the governor.

Four times a year, the Florida governor convenes a panel to hear these applications. Those seeking a restoration of their voting rights have to travel to Tallahassee to petition the governor in person, a significant journey for a poor person from Miami who has to find travel money, hotel money and also the money to absorb income lost from days off work. While tens of thousands start this process, the governor only hears about 50 cases per session. As a result, far more people lose their vote each year than can possibly hope to regain it.

In Mississippi, the process is even more restrictive. To get their vote back, a Mississippi felon has to convince a member of the legislature to introduce a bill specifically re-enfranchising that individual; both houses of the legislature have to support the bill; and the governor has to sign it.

Not surprisingly, few people navigate these mazes successfully, and as a result, more than five percent of all adults and a quarter of adult, male African Americans in the South are legally prevented from voting by state authorities.

Anyone who pays any attention to politics knows that we're a country divided. While the 2000 presidential election produced the freak outcome of an almost-exactly tied race, with the electoral college coming down to Florida and Florida coming down to a few hundred votes, we're in a period where Republicans and Democrats are both able to rely on support from nearly half the eligible electorate, leaving a couple million votes on the margins to decide electoral outcomes.

With more and more low-income people now being funneled into the criminal justice system -- the result of a recalibration of social priorities that has led America in recent decades to embrace a scale of incarceration not seen anywhere else on earth -- more and more people are returning to society as political invisibles. They complete their sentences, and yet they remain without rights of political participation that most of us assume to be universal.

These political invisibles have a dramatic effect on election outcomes. In 2004, for example, while many of the voteless had too many other things to worry about to care about casting ballots come Election Day, many others were desperate to vote.

Lloyd Brown, in Virginia, had spent the better part of a decade trying to convince state election officials to let him vote again. First he'd encountered active resistance, then, when a new governor came in who wanted to re-enfranchise people, he found the elections department had lost his paperwork and he had to start the multi-year process again from scratch.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Jamaica S. spent five years trying to get re-enfranchised after losing her vote on an accessory charge that had only resulted in 15 months probation. Clinton Drake, a Vietnam veteran living in Alabama, had been permanently disenfranchised following a marijuana conviction. Victoria, in Washington State, had lost her voting rights after committing welfare fraud. All of these men and women told me how frustrated, ashamed, and humiliated they felt because they couldn't vote.

Take an increasing number of poor people out of the process, and politics is increasingly becoming a game played by, and for, the affluent classes. Remove the voting power of the urban poor, for example, and issues of importance to inner-city America are unlikely to get much attention when politicians are busily stumping for votes come election time.

Since we presumably want ex-cons to rehabilitate themselves and become law-abiding stakeholders in the community, we should encourage, rather than prohibit, their political participation. By not doing so, society has given up on them. By not doing so, society is keeping them invisible.
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based policy institute. He is the author of the recently-published book "Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House." (The New Press, 2006).
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