No Vote, No Power

Activists are often puzzled by low voter participation in our communities. How come all our door-knocking, town hall meetings and voter registration drives don’t seem to increase voter turn-out? And why are politicians so cavalier about resisting the demands of organized community members?

While some people simply choose not to vote, there are many more who are prevented, either by law or practice, from registering or actually casting a vote that counts. Laws that link voter eligibility to criminal conviction and citizenship, needlessly early voter registration deadlines, difficult voter registration processes, inaccessible and out-of-the-way polling places, and voting machines that require English literacy, visual acuity and manual dexterity are just some of the obstacles that would-be voters face when they try to exercise their right to vote.

Many current election laws create barriers that rob votes from urban, progressive, people of color, youth and low-income-friendly candidates for elected office. They reduce the power that many communities have to elect their own candidates. And since elected officials have little to fear from constituencies that don’t vote, and even less from people who can’t, these communities have little political influence. The end result: a democracy that doesn’t work.

Expanding the Franchise

Felon disfranchisement laws -- state-level rules that strip voting rights from citizens who have been convicted of certain crimes -- help to explain much of the low turn-out in many communities of color, and other communities targeted by discriminatory criminal justice policies. These laws strip the vote from more than 4.65 million U.S. citizens. Most states disfranchise convicted offenders for some period of time – ranging from during incarceration, parole or probation, to permanently. Only Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico allow citizens who are in prison due to felony convictions to vote. And many more people don’t vote because they think they can’t.

Disfranchisement laws disproportionately impact people of color. Nationally, over 13 percent of black adult males are denied the right to vote, compared to 4 percent of non-black males. A report by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund shows that Latinos in ten states are also disfranchised at higher rates than the white population. Sixteen states disfranchise more than ten percent of their African-American population. A few states disfranchise more than a third of their black male population through "permanent" or "lifetime" disfranchisement laws. (Such laws were used in the Florida 2000 election to keep over 650,000 citizens from voting -- more than 1000 times the margin by which Bush won the state.)

Most states do restore voting rights to people with felony convictions at some point after they leave prison. But once they are released and have technically regained the right to vote, no one tells them. This lack of notification has kept many actually eligible Americans from voting. That’s why activists compare this de facto disfranchisement to Juneteenth, the celebration of June 19, 1865, the day that enslaved Blacks in Texas were finally told that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them two years before. Rights aren’t real unless those who have them are told how to use them. Very few states have laws that require notifying an ex-offender when he or she becomes eligible to vote.

The disproportionate racial impact of felony disfranchisement laws is no accident. Most Jim Crow-era laws that kept blacks from voting -- literacy tests, poll taxes, white only primaries, grandfather clauses -- have been repealed because of their racist intent and impact. But just like poll taxes or literacy tests, disfranchisement laws were crafted right after Reconstruction to keep blacks from voting.

Southern lawmakers were not shy about their intentions. "This [disfranchisement] plan," said one Virginia lawmaker in 1906, "will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years … so that in no county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government." In some states male offenders could be disfranchised for beating their wives but not for killing them, because of the understanding that while blacks were disproportionately convicted for spousal abuse, both whites and blacks would be disfranchised due to murder convictions.

A Growing Movement for Policy Change

Fortunately, coalitions of ex-offenders, racial justice and government reforms groups have conducted successful campaigns to reform their states' disfranchisement laws. According to the Sentencing Project and Demos research, laws lowering barriers to voting for people with felony convictions or providing notification to them when they become eligible to vote have been approved in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Wyoming, restoring the vote to more than 500,000 persons. Many of these victories have won by strong multi-racial, multi-issue and multi-constituency coalitions after long years of struggle. The Right to Vote Campaign, a collaborative of 8 national organizations including the ACLU, NAACP, NAACP LDF, MALDEF, the Brennan Center for Justice, Demos, People for the American Way Foundation and the Sentencing Project, recently formed to support advocacy, litigation and public education efforts at the state level.

Advocates have had many successes at making sure that 1) illegal barriers to registering are lowered, 2) that all eligible people know about their eligibility, and have the opportunity to register and vote, and 3) that laws disenfranchising citizens are overturned.

1) Lower Barriers to Voter Registration

Surveys in several states and cities have shown that local election boards often request materials, some of which do not even exist, from citizens with felony convictions who are actually eligible under that state’s law. These requests, not supported by state law, place additional burdens on eligible citizens who want to register to vote.

The Brennan Center and the Legal Action Center, both members of the New York City Unlock the Block Campaign, have brokered an agreement between the State Board of Elections and various criminal justice agencies to end the practice of forcing formerly disfranchised people to submit paperwork before regaining their right to vote. The onus is now on the state to keep its computer files updated. The Hennepin County (Minnesota) Criminal Disfranchisement Practices Working Group, established by the County Board of Commissioners, developed several recommendations, including that the local courts should include voter eligibility information on orders of discharge, that the county corrections department should work with people with felony convictions and community groups to publicize eligibility requirements, and that lists used to purge citizens with felony convictions be reviewed to ensure their accuracy. Texas advocates fought hard to ensure that misleading voter eligibility information on the voter registration form was corrected.

2) Register and Educate Those Who Can Vote

The Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) Washington, DC chapter has been leading voter registration drives in DC jails, and helping pre-trial detainees receive, fill out, and send in absentee ballots. Philadelphia-based Jewish Employment and Vocational Services runs a voter registration program in four Philadelphia jails that registers about 100 pre-trail detainees a month. The Fannie Lou Hamer Project in Michigan and the Ohio Free the Vote Coalition have done similar work in their own states. DemocracyWorks in Connecticut recently got approval from various corrections agencies to place civic participation videos containing information about voter eligibility in prison libraries. And in Florida, a permanent disfranchisement state, a statewide coalition headed by the FL ACLU has organized dozens of clemency tours where disfranchised people who are eligible to apply to get their voting rights restored are counseled through the process. Statistics are also being compiled to determine whether the clemency process itself has discriminatory aspects.

3) Change the Laws

In 2003, advocates won new laws to advance the voting rights of people with felony convictions in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, Virginia, and Wyoming. 2001-2 also had legislative victories in Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico, and Virginia. Academics Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, working with the Sentencing Project, estimate that in five states with the most significant changes in 1996-2003 (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Mexico, and Texas) 471,000 persons had gained access to the ballot box.

In 2003 an Alabama coalition including Alabama Arise prevailed on Alabama Governor Bob Riley (R) to sign into law a bill allowing the parole board to give a "certificate of eligibility to register to vote" to most citizens with felony convictions who have fully completed the terms of their sentence. In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee signed two laws, the first amending the state constitution to give people with felony convictions the right to vote, and the second requiring the Corrections Department to provide them with documentation for proof of eligibility when they re-register. In Wyoming, a coalition including the Equality State Policy Center got Democratic Gov. Freudenthal signed a bill allowing citizens convicted of non-violent felonies to apply to have their voting rights restored five years after completing their sentence or probation. In Missouri, Democratic Gov. Bob Holden signed into law a measure requiring people with felony convictions to be notified in writing about the process to restore their voting rights after completing their sentence.

In this election year, not just progressives but all Americans should want each person who wants to cast a vote to be able to do so. Disfranchisement by law and from a lack of public education are travesties that go beyond ideology and partisanship to a basic question: If American politicians can't stomach all citizens voting, at least they can make sure that all eligible citizens know about their ability to vote.

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