Written by Robert Warden
Thank you to my friend Bruce Kunkel, as well as Robert Reich, for pointing out this issue recently.
You are probably aware of the fact that incarcerated people are not allowed to vote in the United States. That may seem reasonable too, at least on the surface. However, the voting restrictions go far beyond disallowing violent criminals, for instance, from voting. In fact, many nations do allow incarcerated people to vote. Whether one agrees with that or not, it has not appeared to have decremented the political systems in these nations. In contrast, the systematic imprisoning of large numbers of minority persons, then not allowing them to vote — in many cases even after being released from prison — represents another huge brick in the wall that conservatives have built to help insulate themselves from progressives.
This is another case of inverted American Exceptionalism. Yay! Not only are “we” (actually meaning the conservative Republicans who are behind these policies and forcing them on the rest of us) number one in terms of incarcerating the largest percentage of its population, but conservatives have also seized on this fact as another opportunity to engage in voter suppression.
All told, a total of more than 6 million U.S. citizens are being denied the right to vote due to felony convictions (http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2016/10/historic_high_of_6_million_peo.html). Furthermore, various states have different laws prohibiting people with felony convictions in their past, from voting even after release from jail (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/08/they-served-their-time-but-many-ex-offenders-cant-vote-if-they-still-owe-fines/?utm_term=.d8ae4826e76d). In some states, owing any remaining court fees is enough to prevent a person from voting — a practice which is unconstitutional according to Robert Reich, as well as being a clear case of discrimination against poor people and further rigging of the political system.
Overall, about 2.5% of U.S. adults are denied the right to vote due to felony convictions, many of these being nonviolent offenders who wouldn’t have been put in jail in the first place in other nations, having been convicted of crimes such as drug violations. For Blacks, the numbers are even worse. one out of 13 adult Blacks is not allowed to register to vote; that number rises to more than 20% in Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. No wonder Republicans keep winning in these states.
While Robert Reich says that 9 states don’t allow people who have been convicted of felony crimes to vote until their debts have been cleared, an article in the Washington Post by Karin Martin and Anne Stuhldreher states that there are 17 such states, and that 30 states place some kind of conditions on restoring voting rights to those who have been released from jail (such as not being on probation or parole). Furthermore, they note that nearly all states (48 out of 50 since 2010) have been drastically increasing court fees in recent years to acquire more funds; this also has the effect of making it more difficult for ex-felons not only to repay their debts, but also to restore their voting rights in many states. To top it off, sometimes these court fees come with hefty interest payments as well. We are talking about over 100,000 people in some states who cannot vote because of debt, including Alabama for instance — and Doug Jones won despite that. Such laws are being likened to a new form of poll tax, the Jim Crow era laws in former slave states which forced Black people to pay a toll in order to vote, which many potential voters were unable to pay.
In a system in which district and statewide votes are often won by far fewer than these numbers, preventing people from restoring their voting rights following release from prison — let alone banning people from voting while in prison — is likely to change the outcome of a significant percentage of elections. Furthermore, as long as we continue using the Electoral College, there is a likelihood of relatively small numbers of voters in certain states, determining who the president will be, as we are painfully aware.
At the very least, someone needs to challenge these new poll tax laws as unconstitutional, so that they can be overturned and “outlawed” themselves. Meanwhile, we need to lobby as citizens against such outrageous laws, which are a short step from being debtors prisons (which apparently are also making a comeback in some “red states”). I suppose that legislators justify these laws as upholding the morality of the electorate, but really they are anything but moral; this is another dirty trick to blame the poor for their condition and further disenfranchise them politically, knowing that they are disproportionately minority, liberal voters. There will be a political price to be paid by those who create and enact such laws; let us make them pay sooner rather than later.
6 million people denied voting rights due to felony convictions: report