Study: Non-Voting Felons Increasing

W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 21, 2000 -- On Election Day, nearly 1.4 million voting-age black men — more than one in eight — will be ineligible to cast ballots because of state laws that strip felons of the right to vote.

“Here we are, 50 years after the beginning of the civil rights movement, and we actually have an increasing number of African-Americans who are disenfranchised each year,” said Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, which analyzed 1996 Justice Department statistics along with Human Rights Watch.

Disenfranchised black males account for 35 percent of all Americans now barred from voting because of felony convictions. Two percent of all Americans, or 3.9 million, have lost the right to vote, compared with 13 percent of adult black men.

State Policies Vary

State laws governing voter eligibility vary. Nine states impose a lifetime voting ban on convicted felons. In 32 states, felons can vote after serving their sentences and completing parole. Three states — Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont — have no prohibition and allow prisoners to vote, although Massachusetts voters will act on a ballot measure in November that would strip prisoners of voting rights.

Six other states impose restrictions based on a felon’s prior record or parole status.

Allen Beck of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics declined to assess the accuracy of the 13 percent estimate, but Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said he believes the figure is accurate.

Beck said that, based on current rates of incarceration, 28.5 percent of black males will likely serve time in a state or federal prison for a felony conviction, a rate seven times that for white males.

A state-by-state breakdown of data from The Sentencing Project, a private group that favors sentencing reform, shows that in 17 states the estimated percentage of disenfranchised black men is even higher than 13 percent.

In Florida and Alabama, for instance, the figure is 31 percent, while in Mississippi it is 29 percent. In Virginia, 25 percent of otherwise eligible black men cannot vote.

Those four states impose a lifetime ban on voting by felons. The other five states with lifetime bans are Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

Prison Population Growing

After declining in the early 1970s, the prison population in the United States has grown dramatically. More than 2 million people were behind bars last year, according to the Justice Department.

Crime rates have been dropping since 1993, but longer sentences, especially for drug crimes and violent crimes, help account for higher prison populations, with drug-related sentences falling disproportionately on blacks.

In Delaware, where lawmakers in June approved a bill that amends the state constitution to restore voting rights for some felons, proponents argued that barring felons from voting after they leave prison dates back to a time when only white, male landowners were allowed to cast ballots.

The new Delaware law grants voting rights to all those except murderers, sex offenders and those convicted of felony bribery. Felons there and in Pennsylvania must now wait five years after completing their sentence before seeking restored voting rights.

Should Rights be Restored?

David Bositis, senior political analyst of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that researches policy issues concerning blacks and other minorities, said most Americans favor restoring voting rights to felons after they’ve served their time, citing a survey in which 73 percent of respondents called voting “a fundamental right of citizenship.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called disenfranchisement “taxation without representation,” saying the issue goes to the heart of the civil rights movement, which fought for equal access to citizenship for all Americans.

“Whether you’re black, white or brown, once you serve your sentence to society, you should have your vote restored,” he said. “If you don’t have your vote restored, it’s a life sentence.”

But victims’ advocates say felons — especially those convicted of violent crimes — should lose their right to vote.

Sam Rieger, president of Survivors of Homicide, based in Wethersfield, Conn., said voting rights are likely irrelevant to most felons.

“Offering that carrot is not going to accomplish anything,” he said.