W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 21, 2000 -- On Election Day, nearly 1.4 million voting-ageblack men — more than one in eight — will be ineligible to castballots because of state laws that strip felons of the right tovote.
“Here we are, 50 years after the beginning of the civil rightsmovement, and we actually have an increasing number ofAfrican-Americans who are disenfranchised each year,” said MarcMauer of The Sentencing Project, which analyzed 1996 JusticeDepartment statistics along with Human Rights Watch.
Disenfranchised black males account for 35 percent of allAmericans now barred from voting because of felony convictions. Twopercent of all Americans, or 3.9 million, have lost the right tovote, compared with 13 percent of adult black men.
State Policies Vary
State laws governing voter eligibility vary. Nine states imposea lifetime voting ban on convicted felons. In 32 states, felons canvote after serving their sentences and completing parole. Threestates — Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont — have no prohibition andallow prisoners to vote, although Massachusetts voters will act ona ballot measure in November that would strip prisoners of votingrights.
Six other states impose restrictions based on a felon’s priorrecord or parole status.
Allen Beck of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics declinedto assess the accuracy of the 13 percent estimate, but Curtis Gans,director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the AmericanElectorate, said he believes the figure is accurate.
Beck said that, based on current rates of incarceration, 28.5percent of black males will likely serve time in a state or federalprison for a felony conviction, a rate seven times that for whitemales.
A state-by-state breakdown of data from The Sentencing Project,a private group that favors sentencing reform, shows that in 17states the estimated percentage of disenfranchised black men iseven 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 ofotherwise eligible black men cannot vote.
Those four states impose a lifetime ban on voting by felons. Theother 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 theUnited States has grown dramatically. More than 2 million peoplewere 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 forhigher prison populations, with drug-related sentences fallingdisproportionately on blacks.
In Delaware, where lawmakers in June approved a bill that amendsthe state constitution to restore voting rights for some felons,proponents argued that barring felons from voting after they leaveprison dates back to a time when only white, male landowners wereallowed to cast ballots.
The new Delaware law grants voting rights to all those exceptmurderers, sex offenders and those convicted of felony bribery.Felons there and in Pennsylvania must now wait five years aftercompleting their sentence before seeking restored voting rights.
Should Rights be Restored?
David Bositis, senior political analyst of the Joint Center forPolitical and Economic Studies, a think tank that researches policyissues concerning blacks and other minorities, said most Americansfavor restoring voting rights to felons after they’ve served theirtime, citing a survey in which 73 percent of respondents calledvoting “a fundamental right of citizenship.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson called disenfranchisement “taxationwithout representation,” saying the issue goes to the heart of thecivil rights movement, which fought for equal access to citizenshipfor all Americans.
“Whether you’re black, white or brown, once you serve yoursentence 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 convictedof violent crimes — should lose their right to vote.
Sam Rieger, president of Survivors of Homicide, based inWethersfield, Conn., said voting rights are likely irrelevant tomost felons.
“Offering that carrot is not going to accomplish anything,” hesaid.