If you’ve read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness — and you really should, it’s an incredibly important book — you know how our criminal justice system has, intentionally or not, reestablished the reality of the Jim Crow south. Our obsessive focus on drugs and the obsessive focus within that problem on black drug sellers and users (who use and sell drugs at the same rate as whites) has resulted in millions of black men in particular in prison. And that often results in their disenfranchisement as well.
Compare this to the United States where most states prohibit felons from voting. The two states that allow it are Maine and Vermont. These two states also happen to be the whitest states in the nation. Another 13 states and the District of Columbia allow felons on parole to vote. Most of these 13 states have incredibly small black populations such as Montana, New Hampshire, and Utah. An additional four states allow those on probation to vote. Nineteen states allow voting once release is final. And the real kicker is that 12 states stop felons from voting permanently if they don’t meet certain requirements.
The people overwhelmingly affected by these laws are minorities. Only 2.5%, 5.8 million people, in the voting age population were made ineligible to vote by felon voting laws in 2010, according to the Sentencing Project (pdf). That percentage tripled to 7.7% among African-Americans. Another way of putting this is that 38%, 2.2 million, of all those stopped from voting by felon restrictions are black. About a million black ex-felons (i.e. those who have “paid their debt to society”) are disenfranchised…
I don’t need to tell you that African-American voting rights and the southern United States don’t exactly have a glorious history. None of the 21 states where incarcerated felons, those on parole, or on probation can vote are in the south. In Alabama, 15% of voting-age blacks are kept from voting by felon laws, and 14% of voting-age blacks are stopped in Mississippi. This percentage climbs to 19% in Tennessee.
In terms of pure numbers, 137,478 of African-Americans in Alabama, 107,758 in Mississippi, and 145,943 in Tennessee are kept from voting. Of the voters made ineligible by felon voting laws in Tennessee, over 40% are black. That percentage is above 50% in Alabama and Mississippi. The vast majority of these are people who have not only been released prison, but are off probation and parole as well.
The ability to reapply for voting rights can be as simple as submitting an application to the board of elections, but some states make it much more tedious. In Alabama, you can never regain your enfranchisement for certain offenses. In Mississippi, one might lose the right to vote for felony for writing a bad check. Said person would then have to get the state legislature to pass a specific bill allowing them to vote.
It doesn’t matter which party those people are more or less likely to vote for. As a simple matter of justice and equality, they should have the right to vote — especially after they have paid their debt to society. Legislators have paid far too much attention to public fears of criminals, which has prompted them to pass laws with ever-harsher penalties. That is what has caused us to imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other nation in the world. Our system of mass incarceration is a national disgrace; that we even take away the right to vote from those caught up in the system makes it even worse.