As the clock ticks toward the November presidential election, voter rights advocates across the nation are busy waging 11th-hour court battles to reverse attempts by GOP-controlled legislatures to restrict access to the polls.
No community is expected to be hit harder than African Americans. In its 2012 State of Black America Report, the National Urban League cited vote suppression as the number one issue facing the African-American community this year, with the potential to disenfranchise millions of people of color.
“It’s no coincidence that a nationwide rollback in voting rights for America’s most vulnerable citizens is happening just as elected officials mount an unprecedented campaign to slash investments in education and economic development,” wrote Urban League president and CEO Marc H. Morial, in a preface to the report. “We must fight voter suppression, we must educate our citizens so that new laws don't catch them unaware on Election Day, and we must empower them to go to the polls.”
Among the barriers facing Black Americans, one persistent hurdle — the existence of state laws barring convicted felons from voting — has gotten less attention this year as activists focus their efforts on new laws — including one in Pennsylvania — that require would-be voters to produce identification before casting their ballots.
Meanwhile the number of disenfranchised ex-offenders has reached record levels. In July, The Sentencing Project released a report that estimates some 5.85 million Americans will be banned from the polls this year due to a prior felony conviction — up from roughly 4.6 million in 2000. Of this total, 1.4 million are African-American men.
The problem is especially pervasive in the Deep South, where felon disenfranchisement has been used as a means to keep Blacks from voting since the years following the Civil War. The Sentencing Project estimates that 70 percent of all U.S. voters facing felony disenfranchisement are located in the southeastern U.S., where an average of 12 percent of African-American voters will be barred from casting a ballot. In Florida — where, in 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Scott reversed a ruling by his predecessor that gave ex-felons a reasonable path to re-enfranchisement — Blacks represent a third of the estimated one million impacted voters.
“The racial disparities in the criminal justice system translate into higher rates of disenfranchisement in communities of color, resulting in one of every eight adult Black males being ineligible to vote,” explained Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project's executive director. “Disproportionate disenfranchisement in communities of color means the concerns of those communities are not fairly represented at the polls.”
State laws vary widely on the right of convicted felons to vote, ranging from no restrictions at all in Maine and Vermont — where even incarcerated convicts can cast a ballot — to virtual blanket disenfranchisement for some offenses in places like Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Three so-called “battleground states” — Florida, Iowa and Virginia — bar all convicted felons from voting for life unless they receive a special dispensation or approval from the state clemency board.
By contrast, Pennsylvania has relatively liberal laws regarding voting by ex-felons. Under Pennsylvania law, offenders who have been released from prison — or who will be freed by the time of the election — are eligible to register and vote; and, unlike some other states where there is a waiting period, voting rights in the commonwealth are automatically restored upon release.
But that message doesn’t always trickle down to voters. During the run up to the 2008 presidential election, the American Civil Liberties Union received a number of complaints from people with felony convictions that they had been told by their probation or parole officers that they had lost their right to vote. In some cases, the ACLU said, officers even threatened offenders with a parole violation if they registered.
Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says that the group has not received any complaints so far this election cycle, but he adds “there is still plenty of time for problems to surface.”
Ironically, nationwide, rates of disenfranchisement have been increasing since the 1980s, even as laws restricting ex-felon access to the polls have been gradually liberalized. Over the past two decades, 21 states have reformed their felony disenfranchisement policies to expand voter eligibility.
Christopher Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota and an expert on voter disenfranchisement, blames the disparity on rising rates of incarceration.
“The war on drugs has played an important role, because it has really driven up the prison populations — I'd estimate that as much as a quarter of disenfranchised felons were convicted of drug-related crimes,” said Uggen. “The large percentage are people who are decades removed from the offense they committed and are often working, living and paying taxes in their community.”
One of them, Bruce Reilly, is now a second-year law student at Tulane University in New Orleans and a founding member of the national Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement. Upon his release from prison in Rhode Island after serving 12 years for second-degree murder, Reilly began advocating for expanding the voting rights of ex-offenders as a volunteer coordinator for the Rhode Island Right to Vote campaign. In 2006, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals through public referendum.
Reilly — who calls voting a “building block to citizenship” — cast his first ever ballot in 2008, but as a resident of Louisiana, which bars the vote to felons on parole, he'll be sitting this election out. According to Reilly, even in states that allow ex-felons to vote, other factors often lead to de-facto disenfranchisement.
“These are people who have, at some point, been disconnected from the political system and many of them don’t know that they have an ability to vote,” he said. “And, a disproportionate number of them lack proper identification, which even after release could take months to get.”
But restoring voting rights to ex-offenders is more than a simple political issue, says Uggen, who cites research that ties post-release civic engagement to lower rates of recidivism.
“It’s clearly the case that the people who are voting do better,” he said. “Once people start voting they are far less likely to reoffend. The evidence is that re-enfranchisement benefits public safety and I think that's a very important point to make. This is something we can do that is both cheap and safe.”
A bill is currently making the rounds of Congress that would prohibit states from restricting the voting rights of offenders unless they are currently serving a term in prison. The Democracy Restoration Act, which was introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., is currently sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee.