Image by Tak Toyoshima
It is with timid fingers and clammy palms that I reach out to you from the Free Radical handle. Emily Hopkins is leaving some big shoes to fill, and while my own upcoming column of another name and different content awaits, for now it seems appropriate that I address something both radical and criminal justice-oriented: restoring the voting rights of convicted felons.
The facts: Felony disenfranchisement, the loss of the right to vote due to conviction of a felony crime, prohibits 5.85 million Americans from voting. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote with no restrictions. In 15 states, those convicted of a felony cannot vote while they are in prison; in four states, voting is suspended until someone has completed prison time and parole. Furthermore, 18 states add successful completion of probation to that order, while in 12 states convicted felons cannot vote while in prison, on parole, on probation, or for an extensive waiting period after they’ve paid their debt to the criminal justice system.
There are at least four states where being convicted of a second felony (or of a particular felonious offense) permanently strips you of your right to vote.
Why does this matter?
Well, from one angle it matters the same way it mattered that during the Vietnam War 18-year-olds were draft-eligible, but couldn’t vote until they turned 21. Many soldiers had no say in electing the administration that sent them overseas. Today, as the criminal justice system is being altered (reform is slightly too optimistic, don’t you think?), particularly in regard to mandatory sentences and drug convictions, these previously convicted men and women are unable to cast a vote on something that may directly affect their lives or even in favor of landing a particular person in office.
Looked at from a different angle, it’s another way to keep black and minority Americans from voting.
A disproportionate number of the country’s convicted-felon population is black. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice system watchdog, reports that one in 13 black Americans is unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement, while only one in 56 non-black voters is affected by these laws.
Historically, black Americans are far more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. A soaring majority of states with the most stringent restrictions on the voting rights of felons are those with a Republican-run legislature.
On April 22, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, used his executive power to override the state’s Republican-dominated legislature and restored voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons. Most of them, the New York Times reported, are black.
I’m not here to debate Gov. McAuliffe’s political motivations for signing such a decree. But I do want to point out Virginia’s swing-state status and leave you thinking about which way that state may have swung had an extra 200,000 black Americans been able to cast their vote in, say, 2004.
Don’t get me started on Florida.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.