Felons should not be stripped of voting rights
Published: Monday, April 2, 2012
Updated: Monday, April 2, 2012 23:04
If you’re in prison on parole for a felony conviction in Connecticut, you can’t vote. Connecticut is one of 48 states with laws revoking voting rights from felons. Some only prohibit imprisoned felons from voting, while others restore the right to vote only after a felon has served all of his or her time, including prison, parole and probation. However, 13 states disenfranchise some or all felons for life, even after they have completed their entire sentence. While this may sound reasonable to some, the actual effect of this policy is widespread disenfranchisement of certain populations, such as African-Americans. Connecticut, and the other 47 states with such laws, should restore felons’ right to vote.
Currently, more than 5 million Americans are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction (including 2 million ex-felons who have served their time). This is about 2 percent of the national voting-age population. This may seem minimal, but it would have been enough to change the outcome of close races. Felon disenfranchisement is also a slowly growing problem due to harsher sentences being pushed for a large number of offenses. This has made the proportion of disenfranchised felons and ex-felons increase in relation to the entire voting-age population, with slightly over 1 percent of the national voting-age population disenfranchised in 1974, and more than 2.3 percent of the national voting-age population disenfranchised in 2000.
Not only does felon disenfranchisement deny millions of Americans the right to vote, it disproportionately affects racial minorities. While laws restricting the voting rights of felons are racially neutral in their language, their histories and effects paint a much more discriminatory picture, as was also the case with poll taxes and literacy tests. As stated earlier, about 2 percent of the national voting-age population is disenfranchised due to felony convictions. However, when looking only at the African-American voting-age population, this number rises to more than 8 percent.
Some claim that this is merely an unfortunate coincidence, but a look at the historical record indicates that felon disenfranchisement was originally engineered as a method to repress the voting power of African-Americans. Politicians pushing for felon disenfranchisement laws in the post-Civil War era often openly stated the laws would help take the vote from blacks, including one Alabama politician who boasted that, by including wife-beating as an offense warranting disenfranchisement, the law would stop 60 percent of African-Americans from voting. Today, the disproportionate effects are largely due to the flawed War on Drugs. Despite evidence that racial minorities use drugs at rates similar to whites, in 1999, 28.9 percent of federal drug charges were against African-Americans, who make up only 13 percent of the population. In the same year, Hispanics made up 45.5 percent of federal drug defendants, but they make up less than 15 percent of the population. When compounded, these policies lead to the institutional disenfranchisement of large numbers of racial minorities in the United States.
These laws also disproportionately affect people with low incomes, who are more commonly convicted of felonies than middle- and upper-class people. This, along with the racial disparities inherent in the law, may have significantly impacted who is elected in the United States and what policies they pursue once in office. According to the foremost author on felon disenfranchisement, Christopher Uggen, “Removing approximately 5 million mostly low-income citizens from the electorate is likely to have shifted the positions of the major parties on many issues. For example, it is easier to disregard the concerns of low-income voters on economic issues when millions of such voters are legally disenfranchised.”
It is clear that felon disenfranchisement laws, while neutral on their face, have effectively lessened the political voices of low-income people and people of color. Their implementation discriminates against these groups, altering electoral and policy outcomes, which may further enforce racial disparities in our justice system and other aspects of American life. All 48 states that forbid felons and ex-felons from voting should repeal their disenfranchisement laws, and Connecticut should take the lead.