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Disenfranchised Felons: Citizens Without the Right to Vote in the US

In Voting on December 10, 2008 at 4:24 am

Kristine Breganio

In September 2008, the Sentencing Project, an agency that researches state policies regarding felony disenfranchisement, reported that as many as 5 million felons could not vote in the 2008 Presidential election.  Included in this number are current prisoners, probationers, parolees, and ex-prisoners.  In his report “Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform 1997-2008, ” Ryan King of the Sentencing Project describes the years leading up to this historic election and the efforts of nineteen states to reform their disenfranchisement policies which resulted in the restoration of voting rights for 760,000 ex-felons.

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Historically, the federal government has used voter disenfranchisement to lock certain populations deemed undesirable out of the vote; groups such as women, criminals, African Americans, other minorities and the poor. Today convicted felons are the only remaining group that remains disenfranchised by law, according to Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, and author of the essay, “Mass Imprisonment and the Disappearing Voters.”

More recently, proponents of felony disenfranchisement see denying felons the right to vote as another form of punishment, and as a measure to prevent potential electoral fraud. Conservatives who support felony disenfranchisement want to prevent criminals from voting for representatives who would work in their favor. They see convicted felons as a demographic that could go to the democratic side. In a recent phone interview, King confirmed that the conservatives had a legitimate reason to be apprehensive of felons securing the right to vote; had they had the opportunity to do so in the 2008 election, they would have “overwhelmingly voted democratic,” resulting in an even wider margin of victory for Barack Obama. When it comes to electoral fraud, however, Mauer claims that proponents of felony disenfranchisement have nothing to fear, as 99 percent of felons have no charges of electoral fraud in their history. Furthermore, Mauer points out that electoral fraud is not a felony, but a misdemeanor, and those with such charges are not at risk of disenfranchisement. The public tends to generally agree with felony disenfranchisement as another means to punish criminals, but a July 2003 study by Brian Pinaire at Fordham University showed that 66.8 percent of people surveyed expressed the belief that disenfranchisement should end with one’s sentence. Nevertheless, most of the general public is unaware of the unintended consequences of felony disenfranchisement, one of which includes de facto racism against African American males.

Although the 15th Amendment of the U.S. constitution prevents state governments from using race as a basis on which to determine voting eligibility, one out of every eight black adult males is disenfranchised. Nationally, around two million African Americans are unable to vote because of state felony disenfranchisement policies, states Mauer. Pinaire notes that African American men make up an overwhelming 36 percent of the disenfranchised population. Latino men also make up a majority of the prison population, According to a 2008 report from the Pew Center on the States, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” one in every 36 Latino adult males is disenfranchised.

Currently, the United States is the only democratic nation that denies ex-prisoners the right to vote. Ten states revoke the voting rights of those who have been convicted of a felony for life. In some such states, ex-prisoners have the opportunity to seek pardon or clemency from the governor so that they may vote, although it is a rare occurrence. Nine other states have abandoned permanent disenfranchisement and restore voting rights automatically, or following waiting periods of anywhere up to ten years.

Only two states allow prisoners to vote, Maine and Vermont. These states are a model for those who believe in full enfranchisement of all citizens, but King exposes a flaw in the voting procedure; prisoners are given absentee ballots, meaning their vote counts toward the district from which they came, not the district in which they are counted as an inmate in the prison.  In fact, these prisoners, as well as those in other states are counted by the census in the town where they are imprisoned, so the region benefits with [federal and state money] for prisoners who have no electoral representation. In other words, prisoners are counted as citizens in the census for the purposes of district apportionment, but are not allowed to take part in electing the people who will represent them.

In Illinois, voting rights are restored automatically upon release. Those on parole, probation, or are in jail awaiting trial also have access to voting rights. Like other states, Illinois has improved the restoration process, ensuring that newly released prisoners have been informed of their right to vote and aiding in the registration process. Darrell Cannon, recently released from prison after 24 years, voted for the first time in his life in the recent presidential election at a polling place right across the street from his house. “What made it such a historic event for me was that I was able to vote for an Afro-American for the president of the United States,” Cannon stated. On election night, Cannon was working the midnight shift as a security guard with no TV or radio. He suspected that Obama might have won because he “became aware of the sounds of celebration in the distance.” It wasn’t until he got home the next morning that he saw the results. In prison, Cannon said, they did their best to keep up with election coverage but it was very limited.

Though current Illinois prisoners are legally are unable to vote themselves, a small movement, known as the “One Prisoner, One Vote” Initiative has started in support of prisoner suffrage. Free people taking part in the initiative agree to relinquish their own vote and instead vote in a prisoner’s place. The initiative, Anaviel Rakemyahu remarked, is the first of its kind and has enlisted the help of over 200 so far. In the future he hopes that the movement will capture the attention of legislators and increase the involvement of prisoners in the political process. (See article about One Prisoner, One Vote.)

The Sentencing Project’s report on disenfranchisement policies over the last ten years uncovers the tremendous amount of change that has occurred in legislation surrounding the issue since 1997. King remains optimistic that changes in policy will continue to evolve in time for the next election. When it comes to the rest of the states falling in line with Maine and Vermont and allowing prisoners to vote, King is less optimistic: “changes to end lifetime disenfranchisement policies continue to gain momentum, but there’s not a lot of legislative push to allow prisoners to vote. We are a long way off from that.”

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