Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Something I Did Not Know

The recurring thrust by conservatives to impose special identification requirements on voters, thinly veiled as "anti-fraud" measures, has cropped up again as election season nears. The intent, of course, is to make it difficult, if not impossible, for certain groups to vote: the elders, the poor, the immigrant citizens, all of whom tend to vote for Democrats. These people have been effectively disenfranchised.

But there is another class of citizens who have long been actually disenfranchised. Those who are incarcerated and/or those who have been convicted of a felony lose their right to vote even after they have served out their time. So much for the rehabilitation aspect of prison. What I didn't know, however, is the racist history behind the laws disenfranchising felons.

Erika L. Wood, an associate professor of law at New York Law School, sketches out that history in a brief essay published by the New York Times.

Erika L. Wood is an associate professor of law at New York Law School.

Next November more than 5 million Americans will not be allowed to vote because of a criminal conviction in their past. Nearly 4 million of these people are not in prison, yet they remain disenfranchised for years, often for decades and sometimes for life. ...

These laws trace their roots through the troubled history of American race relations. In the late 1800s criminal disenfranchisement laws spread as part of a larger backlash against the adoption of the Reconstruction Amendments – the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments – that ended slavery, granted equal citizenship to freed slaves and prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Criminal disenfranchisement laws followed in their wake. They were employed right alongside poll taxes and literacy tests as part of an organized effort to design supposedly race neutral laws that were in fact intentional barriers to African-American voting. ...

Historical records memorializing state constitutional conventions reveal some astounding rhetoric in support of these laws. During the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901, delegate Carter Glass (later a prominent senator, the Glass of the Glass-Steagall Act) described the suffrage proposal which included felony disenfranchisement as a plan that would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years.” The strategy was not limited to southern states. In New York, African-American suffrage was the subject of much debate at the 1821 and 1846 constitutional conventions. In a refrain that echoes throughout the century-long suffrage debate, New York delegate Samuel Young implored: “Look to your jails and penitentiaries. By whom are they filled? By the very race whom it is now proposed to clothe with the power of deciding upon your political rights.”
[Emphasis added]

And because of "quirky" sentencing laws, the various state laws denying this very basic right in a democracy have been very successful:

Nationwide, 13 percent of black men have lost the right to vote, a rate that is seven times the national average. But the ripple effects of large-scale incarceration now extend well beyond the individuals who are imprisoned, and as a result minority communities throughout the country have lost political influence. It’s a simple equation: communities with high incarceration rates have fewer votes to cast. The whole community suffers the result. [Emphasis added]

These laws are dreadfully wrong for many reasons. As I noted earlier, it removes one incentive for complete rehabilitation. The punishment continues long after the sentence is completed. It also effectively disenfranchises entire communities, depriving even "the innocent" of voting power. Ms. Woods notes one way to correct this appalling situation:

Representative John Conyers Jr. recently reintroduced into the House the Democracy Restoration Act ..., a bill that would go a long way toward ending disenfranchisement. A broad coalition of law enforcement, religious leaders and civil rights groups support the measure, which would restore voting rights in federal elections to all Americans who are out of prison.

This is a good resolution to the disenfranchisement. A phone call, fax, or email to your congress critters is in order.

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