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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Our Nation has a Secret: Felony Disenfranchisement in America

Yesterday, on HuffPost, the NAACP's Jokata L. Eaddy reminded us that many Americans remain disenfranchised. The title of ths post comes from Eaddy's post, in which she writes:

Laws preventing returning prisoners from voting originated prior to the Reconstruction era in an attempt to stem the growth of the black voting bloc and black electorate. Today, the effects are the same. The latest data reveals that nearly six million people cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws practiced in across 48 states and the District of Columbia. More than two million of those disenfranchised are black.

 

Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa practice permanent disenfranchisement, erecting impenetrable barriers for people who are no longer incarcerated. Virginia made some strides after an executive order this summer granted automatic restoration of rights to people with non-violent felony convictions; however, that order's future will rely on the Governor-elect's agenda beginning in 2014. Kentucky and Iowa are slowly embracing change, but until those laws are amended in their state Constitutions, like this year's history-making legislation in Delaware, each state is still behind the curve. 

For decades, the United Nations has recognized that the right to vote and the right to be free from discrimination as integral components of our international system. This is why groups like the NAACP, The Sentencing Project, and the ACLU have made continuous efforts to highlight how felony disenfranchisement laws violate these principles and our country's international obligations. This year the United Nations Human Rights Committee signaled that felony disenfranchisement practices would be a priority during a March 2014 review of the United States' obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

 

Additionally, a growing number of nations have supported UN resolutions inclusive of language calling on countries to ensure that all citizens are granted the right and opportunity to vote regardless of incarceration status.

While felon disenfranchisement gets comparatively little coverage, I'm not convinced that it's a secret. As I've noted, several potential Republican presidential candidates have stated their support for extending the right to vote to ex-felons. Sen. Rand Paul said so much earlier this year; and, Sen. Rich Santorum and then presidential candidate Mitt Romney exchanged attacks over Santorum's support for such an extension in a 2012 presidential primary in South Carolina. In October, The Atlantic covered felon disenfranchisement and the ways in which it shifts political power away from minority communities; and, The American Prospect recently ran this cover story on the history of felon disenfranchisement. Indeed, because of the commitment of advocates like Eaddy, felon disenfranchisement seems to be of increased interest.

However, Eaddy is certainly correct in suggesting that political progress on the issue has been frustratingly slow. The problem, it seems to me, is that felon disenfranchisement is easily separable from other voting rights issues because of the subjects of the disenfranchisement. Politicians and the media largely ignore issues affecting felons and ex-felons for those that produce political advantages and higher ratings. That is, we know about felon disenfranchisement, but politicians and the media can convince us that the issue is less pressing than others.

For this reason, advocates ought to consider how to align extension of the franchise to felons and ex-felons with ongoing debates over the right to vote more generally. I have made my pitch here

Some helpful law review articles:

CRL&P related reads:

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/civil_rights/2013/12/felon-disenfrachisement-reads-janai-s-nelson-gabriel-j-chin-reconstruction-felon-disenfranchisement-and-the-right-to.html

Equal Protection Clause, Right to Vote, Theories of Punishment | Permalink

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