Volume 18: Voting in the 2004 Elections
Losing the Right to Vote
by Andy Nash
Read the quote below from U.S. Representative John Conyers, Jr.. Who do you think he is talking about? Who is "blocked out of the voting process" in the United States?
Since the founding of this country, most states in the U.S. have passed laws that take away the right to vote from felons and ex-felons (a felon is a person who has been convicted of a serious crime). These are called felony disenfranchisement laws.
Laws are different from state to state. However, in most places, felons cannot vote while they are in prison. In several other states, people who are on parole or have already served their sentence are still barred from voting, sometimes permanently. The United States is the only democracy in which convicted offenders who have served their sentences may be disenfranchised for life. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, do not have disenfranchisement laws at all.
People who support felony disenfranchisement claim that convicted felons are bad people who should not vote, and that disenfranchisement should be part of their punishment. People who disagree with these laws say that voting is every citizen's right and has nothing to do with the sentence for a crime. In fact, voting helps ex-offenders become part of a stable community again—it can be part of the rehabilitation process.
In 2000, Florida's felony disenfranchisement laws received a lot of attention because over 600,000 ex-felons were not allowed to vote in the presidential election. President Bush won in Florida by only 537 votes. This state strips citizens who are convicted felons of their voting rights for life—even after they've completed their punishment—unless they go through a very complicated application process that many ex-felons don't know about.
In 1890, Mississippi was the first state to use felony disenfranchisement laws against African-Americans. Until then, the Mississippi law disenfranchised those guilty of any crime. In 1890, the law was changed to focus on crimes such as bigamy and vagrancy. These crimes were more common among African-Americans because slavery had separated them from their families and/or left them homeless. Felony disenfranshisement laws, combined with other laws like poll taxes and literacy tests disempowered, African-American communities and excluded them from the political process.
A Shifting Terrain
Since each state makes and changes its own laws, it can be difficult to see a national trend on this issue. However, most of the changes in the last five years have been toward loosening the restrictions on voting rights. This past summer, a judge in Florida ruled that the state's process for restoring voting rights to prisoners was too difficult, a decision that will give voting privileges to 30,000 ex-felons. To find out about the laws in your own state, see http://www.sentencingproject.org/pdfs/UggenManzaSummary.pdf
For information for how to restore individual voting rights, see: http://www.advancementproject.org/Re-En.pdf. Most of the information in this article comes from articles that can be found at http://www.demos-usa.org and http://www.sentencingproject.org.
Andy Nash is the EFF coordinator and the civic participation coordinator at NELRC/World
Bigamy: marrying one person when you're already married to another.
1. What about this article do you think is worth discussing?
2. What is something you learned that you didn't know before?
3. Go to the suggested Web site to find out about the laws in your state. What do you hope they are?
4. How has the article influenced your views one way or the other? What points do you think are the strongest?
5. Return to the quote of Representative John Conyers, Jr. you read before the article. Do you think these laws weaken or strengthen our democracy?
6. Here's another quote from Representative John Conyers, Jr. What do you think about what he is saying?
"If we want former felons to become good citizens, we must give them rights as well as responsibilities, and there is no greater responsibility than voting."