Most people have no idea whether offenders (ex-cons) have the right to vote. My barber, who knows a lot of things about a lot of stuff, made the wrong assumption about me. “How can an ex-con,” she said in her caring tone, “vote? Didn’t you lose your right to vote and to run for president?” I think she’s right about the running-for-president part, but she’s wrong about California ex-cons not having renewed voting rights. I’ve purposely qualified my statement because what happens in California does not necessarily follow in other states.
A Brief History Lesson
The US Constitution does not guarantee anyone the right to vote. (The Twenty-Sixth Amendment extended the right to vote to eighteen year olds. The right comes with strings attached, as described in this blog.)
Because no such right exist (including for nonoffenders), state-enacted felon disenfranchisement laws currently limit millions of Americans from voting. The number of men and women who are not allowed to vote is alarming. According to the Sentencing Project, “A striking 5.85 million [ex-offender] Americans are prohibited from voting due to laws that disenfranchise.”
The 1965 Voting Rights Act, passed during the Johnson administration, intended to alleviate voting obstructions. The History Learning Site explains it this way:
It outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes as a way of assessing whether anyone was fit or unfit to vote. As far as [President] Johnson was concerned, all you needed to vote was American citizenship and the registration of your name on an electoral list. No form of hindrance to this would be tolerated by the law courts.
The impact of this act was dramatic. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the traditional 13 Southern states had less than 50% of African Americans registered to vote. By 1968, even hard-line Mississippi had 59% of African Americans registered. In the longer term, [history reflects that] far more African Americans were elected into public office. The Act was the boost that the civil rights cause needed to move it swiftly along and Johnson has to take full credit for this. As Martin Luther King had predicted in earlier years, demonstrations served a good purpose but real change would only come through the power of Federal government. Johnson proved this.
Christopher Zoukis brings us up to date in a Huffington Post blog:
States differ widely in how they treat re-enfranchisement of former felons. Two states (Maine and Vermont) let persons convicted of felonies continue voting even while they are serving prison terms. Three states (Florida, Kentucky and Iowa) have lifetime bars on convicted felons voting. Maryland now joins 13 other states and the District of Columbia in permitting felons voting rights as soon as they are released; seventeen states require not just release, but completion of the ex-offender’s sentence, including any required parole or probation.
The American Way Stinks
So, you pay your proverbial debt to society, but where you reside determines whether you will be disenfranchised by state legislators. When is a pound of flesh not enough? Why does the stench of having served time in prison follow ex-offenders into the voting booth? I don’t have the answers to these simple questions, especially when states approach the situation in myriad ways.
An insight into the problem can be found in Federalist Paper No. 10, published in 1787. Written by James Madison to support the ratification of the US Constitution by the original thirteen states, No. 10 illustrates Madison’s understanding that human beings are bent on acting as “factions” that can cause “instability, injustice, and confusion” in public life. Madison defined a “political faction” in his paper: “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Sound familiar? Sound like what’s happening in the circus-like race for presidential candidacy that currently embroils the country?
The Politics of the Vote
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has long been a supporter of universal suffrage. His website notes that Vermont is “one of two states that do not restrict voting rights of anyone convicted of felonies,” and goes on to say that “In March 2015, Bernie co-sponsored the Democracy Restoration Act, which seeks to reinstate voting rights to people who have served their time and been freed from prison.”
For the opposite viewpoint, Alice Ollstein of Think Progress reported the following:
At a rally Monday in Rhode Island, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump went after the governor of Virginia for signing an executive order that restores the voting rights of more than 200,000 ex-felons.
“That’s crooked politics,” he told the booing crowd. “They’re giving 200,000 people that have been convicted of heinous crimes, horrible crimes, the worst crimes, the right to vote because, you know what? They know they’re gonna vote Democrat. They’re gonna vote Democrat and that could be the swing. That’s how disgusting and dishonest our political system is.”
Trump’s usual porous analysis of humanistic issues isn’t worth much further recognition. Trump’s view is an exercise in shadowboxing to foster his own brand of factional thinking.
On April 22, 2016, the Washington Post reported that Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, by way of an executive order, “will allow more than 200,000 ex-cons in Virginia to register to vote in the upcoming presidential election, one of the biggest actions taken by a state to instantly restore voting rights.”
That same day, Hillary Clinton tweeted her position on Governor McAuliffe’s action in one sentence, “Proud of my friend [at] GovernorVA for continuing to break down barriers to voting.—H.”
How significant is the problem of playing politics with the vote by using ex-offenders as fall guys? Correct the Record reports that “the Jeb Bush administration purged 12,000 eligible voters from the Florida voter rolls ahead of the 2000 presidential election. According to Rolling Stone, ‘Back in 2000, 12,000 eligible voters— a number twenty-two times larger than George W. Bush’s 537 vote triumph over Al Gore—were wrongly identified as convicted felons and purged from the voting rolls in Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.’” (Emphasis added)
Theoretically, based on the number above, ex-offenders could have changed the result of the 2000 election. If a small percentage of the twelve thousand had voted, they could have ended the hanging chad fiasco in favor of Al Gore, ending the regime of George W. Bush.
Talk about a rigged system.
What’s your take on this? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
Image: Mike McDonald/shutterstock.com