The Ever-Elusive Right to Vote
Last week, as part of the Ignite Festival, I participated in a panel on voting rights following a screening of "American Blackout", a documentary that chronicles the recurring patterns of disenfranchisement witnessed from 2000 to 2004 through the lens of Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney's political campaigns.
I spoke about the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans across the nation as a result of our felon disenfranchisement laws and also about the undemocratic effect in New York of the Census Bureau's application of the usual residence rule (see my article in the Brooklyn Rail, "Counting Off Upstate").
A growing awareness across the country of the devastating effects of felon enfranchisement laws, particularly on poor communities of color, has resulted in a gradual easing of such restrictions (see the New York Times Article "States Are Growing More Lenient in Allowing Felons to Vote") --- yet many are still in place, and will have an impact on the 2006 and 2008 elections.
On the bright side, over the past ten years, 16 state legislatures in 16 states have relaxed voting restrictions on felons. According to a recent report issued by the Sentencing Project, Iowa, Nebraska and New Mexico have repealed their lifetime bans on voting by convicted felons, while numerous other states have eased voting obstacles for parolees and people on probation. The good news, then, is that these modifications have restored voting rights to more than 600,000 individuals.
The bad news? 5.3 million adult Americans (one out of every 41) --- more than ever --- are still prohibited from voting. 1.4 million African American men (or 13%) are disenfranchised, a rate seven times the national average. An estimated 676,730 women are currently ineligible to vote as a result of a felony conviction. Thus, even as the pendulum swings slowly back in the direction of returning the right to vote to ex-offenders, our prison population continues to grow, as does the number of people on parole or probation, outnumbering those who benefit from changes in state laws.
As the laws stand today, 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting; only Maine and Vermont permit inmates to vote. 36 states prohibit felons from voting while they are on parole, and 31 of these states exclude people on felony probation as well. Florida, Kentucky, Virginia deny the right to vote to all ex-offenders (including those who have completed their sentences), while nine other states disenfranchise certain categories of ex-offenders.
Speaking of Florida, home to perhaps the most controversial (and history-altering) election fiasco in 2000, the Sunshine State had an estimated 960,000 ex-felons who were unable to vote in the 2004 presidential election.
In addition to people barred from participating in the political process by law, there are many who become eligible but encounter procedural and bureaucratic difficulties in re-registering, and still others who are not cognizant of their eligibility.
The Voter Enfranchisement Project at the Bronx Defenders, for example, did a survey in 2005 of its clients regarding their knowledge of felon disenfranchisement laws (which might directly affect them). 54% believed erroneously that an individual could not vote while awaiting trial at Rikers Island; 38% erred in thinking that an individual could vote in New York while on parole; another 32% were incorrect in their belief that an individual could not vote in New York while on probation; one-quarter mistakenly believed that a felony conviction in New York resulted in a permanent loss of voting rights; and more than one in six believed in error that an individual could not vote in New York if convicted of a misdemeanor.
As VEP states, "the over-statement of voting rights is problematic because it has the potential to decrease voter turnout, as those who improperly believe they can vote may attempt to vote, be turned away, and therefore be less likely to vote in the future. The under-statement of voting rights is problematic because it means that people who have the right to vote are never making it to the polls."
These are concerns all across the country. In Florida and Ohio, it was not only that hundreds of people were removed from voter lists in error; it was also that they were stripped of their dignity and left with a bitter feeling about our political process, potentially keeping them away from voting booths in the future to avoid going through such frustrating, humiliating experiences again.
It is crucial for the health of our democracy, our dignity, and for legitimate election outcomes, that we encourage voting laws and procedures that are inclusive and that aim to both engage eligible voters and re-engage others who have previously lost the right to vote. In addition, it is essential that we eliminate election fraud and chicanery from the process of electing our representatives.
Only then can America call itself a true democracy.