Felon Ban Hurts Blacks and Democrats

During the last presidential campaign Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry tepidly spoke out against the ban by some states on ex-felon voting. He should have shouted out against it. The ban hurts Democrats far more than Republicans. Blacks make up a huge percentage of those barred from voting because of a prison stint. They are far more likely to vote Democrat than Republican.

The ex-felon vote ban in Florida in 2000 did much to snatch the White House from Al Gore. The ban on ex-felon voting also may have deprived Kerry of thousands of potential votes in Ohio. That almost certainly helped swell Bush's vote total in that pivotal state, and insure his White House return. Kerry, and top Democrats have said and done little since the election to get states to modify or scrap their vote bans. The Sentencing Project, in a recent report, again noted that more than a dozen states still permanently bar ex-cons from voting, or make it so difficult for them to get their rights restored that for all practical purposes they're banned from voting for life. Blacks are still the hardest hit by the bans. One in four adult black men are effectively disenfranchised by the bans.

It's no accident that five of the dozen states that perpetuate this morally and legally indefensible practice are Southern states. The South has had a long and deplorable history of devising an arsenal of racially abusive tactics including poll taxes, literacy laws and political gerrymandering to drive blacks from the voting booths.

This thinly disguised relic of the South's Jim Crow past has done much to drastically dilute black political strength. In 1996 about 4.5 million black men voted in the presidential election. If the 1 million black men in prison, on parole, or probation that were disenfranchised because of their criminal record had been added to the total their vote might have made a crucial difference in deciding close statewide contests.

Black ex-felon disenfranchisement will probably get worse. Blacks now make up nearly half of the more than 2 million prisoners in the nation's jails. The entrenchment of racially biased drug laws, racial profiling, and chronic poverty in many black communities means that more black men will be arrested, prosecuted, convicted and serve longer prison sentences than white men. This virtually guarantees that the number of blacks behind bars will swell. The Sentencing Project estimates that at the present rate of black incarceration upwards of 40 percent of black men could be permanently barred from the polls in the vote restricted states in the next few years. And since most state officials are scared stiff of being publicly labeled as soft on crime, state legislatures have either ignored the issue or stonewalled legislation that would end the archaic practice.

Congress can take a big step toward rectifying this blatant injustice by passing the still pending Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act. It would not effect voting in state elections but it would restore voting rights to ex-felons in federal elections.

It will take a fierce fight to get this bill passed. Many conservatives passionately defend the policy of ex-felon disenfranchisement. They claim that in barring criminals from voting society sends the strong message that if you break the law you should pay, and continue to pay dearly. The argument might make sense if all or most of the disenfranchised ex-felons were convicted murderers, rapists or robbers. And they were denied the vote because of a court-imposed sentence. This is not the case.

None of the states that bar felons from voting in near perpetuity require that judges strip them of their voting rights as part of their sentence based on the seriousness of the crime or the severity of the punishment. The majority of ex-felons are jailed for non-violent crimes such as drug possession, passing bad checks, or auto theft. In most instances they fully served their sentence and in theory paid their debt to society.

Most of the convicted felons were young men when they committed their crime. The odds are that most of them won't become career criminals, but will hold steady jobs, raise families and become responsible members of the community. Yet imprinting these ex-felons with the legal and social stigma of "hereditary criminals" and banning them from voting until death makes politicians and many Americans seem like the worst kind of hypocrites when they say they believe in giving prisoners a second chance in life.

Civil liberties groups and civil rights organizations must fight harder against the bans. That means filing court challenges and mounting a sustained lobbying campaign in Congress or state legislatures to get the discriminatory voting laws changed.

The denial of voting rights to thousands of blacks decades after the end of slavery and legal segregation is a travesty of justice, and a blot on the democratic process. It will also cost the Democrats thousands of votes and maybe even the White House in the next presidential election.

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