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Something which is underreproted and underappreciated is the extent to which minorities are still unfairly denied the franchise.  In Virginia, approximately one quarter of African-American men are unable to vote because they are felons.

Data from the Sentencing Project say that more than 200,000 African-Americans in Virginia are felons.  The total population of African-Americans in the state according to 2000 census data was about 1.4 million.  Assuming 1.2 million adults (allow for some population growth in the past eight years) and 600K men, with 150K of the felons being men, and you get the 1/4 number.  

The really crazy thing is that, according to the Sentencing Project, more than two thirds 55% of the convicted felons in Virginia are African American.  Given their share of the population, that means an African-American is seven 4.5 times more likely to be disenfranchised in Virginia than a White person.

This is horrifying but perhaps not terribly surprising in a state that effectively denied all African-Americans the franchise until 1965 through poll taxes and "literacy" tests.

Virginia has one of the strictest laws in the country when it comes to giving felons back their rights to vote. All types of felons automatically lose their right to vote for the remainder of their lives.  While its possible to reapply after a certain number of years have passed since the end of one's sentence, the state governor has complete and arbitrary say over whether to grant requests.  If the felony was for either drug distribution or for a violent offense, the process is so arduous that virtually no one would actually go through with it.

Unfortunately, the disenfranchisement law comes not from statutory authority but from the state consitution.  To overturn the disenfranchisement clause would require a state ballot measure that must first be approved by both houses of the state legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions seperated by a general election.

While the Senate occasionally passes a law calling for a ballot measure, the House, which has a larger Republican majority, won't let such bills leave committee.  Even if a ballot measure were passed, it would be rough going in this state since felons are an easy group to demonize.

The other avenue for reform, having the federal courts strike down the state constitution's clause on Fourteenth Amendment grounds, is not really going anywhere.  The jurisprudence on this issue appears to be that a law has to have both discriminatory intent and discriminatory effect.  While the discriminatory effects seem undeniable, the current conservative Circuit Court, and Supreme Court, are unlikely to find in favor of striking down this provision on intent grounds.

But that makes the situation no less a travesty of justice.  I've been canvassing for Senator Obama in Virginia and several other states.  I've often been responded to sharply by felons who hate to be reminded that they are locked out of the system.  The law in Virginia not only disenfranchises a quarter of African-American men, it also alienates a lot of the community from being involved in politics.  Wives, sisters, children, friends and family all can be discouraged when they see thier husbands, brothers and fathers unable to vote.  To some, this is no doubt part of the upside.

I try to wrap my head around why someone could consider this situation acceptable.  People argue that felons violated a social contract and therefore sacrificed their right to vote.  That argument is a pile of horse doo-doo though.  Virginia has one of the worst-funded indigent defense systems in the country which means poor people get railroaded with felonies where people who can afford lawyers are able to plead cases down to misdemeanors for the same crimes.  Common crimes like destruction of property and assault are the kinds of crimes that can fall on either side of the misdemeanor / felony line.  

Moreover, why should we throw people out of participation in the body politic after they have served their sentence?  Society should do everything it can to give those who once committed and paid for their crimes a stake in the system.  Many states, like Vermont, realize this and even give incarcerated citizens the right to vote.  Virginia is essentially the most retrograde state in the country on this issue, and really is alone among mature democracies in the world if Wikipedia's survey (linked above) is to be believed.

We live in a country where somoene can snort cocaine and then become President, where we might get a first lady who stole prescription drugs from a charity to feed her own addiction, yet where a poor guy who smokes a crack pipe or does a few hundred dollars of property damage can lose his civil rights forever.  Its crazy.

Originally posted to creweeny on Tue Apr 08, 2008 at 06:12 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I sure am glad I live in North Carolina... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mariachi mama, MizC, soms OPPOSED to Virginia, as a black man.
    Here, getting your voting rights back
    requires completing "all terms of" your
    sentence.  If you can prove you actually
    did that then the state restores them
    automatically -- you don't have to apply
    or anything -- they just send you a letter
    that you can wave at people, in case some
    local voter registrar is fool enough to try
    to deny you because you are, or, as we say
    here, WERE, a felon.
    This is still a little bit problematic
    because if your sentence involved any
    sort of re$titution for your crime, you
    may, as a felon, have trouble getting a
    good enough job to actually be able to pay
    it, so you may never complete those terms.
    Another problem is that a lot of (as we
    call them) "ex"-felons are not aware that
    the law is this liberal and wrongly presume
    that they cannot vote because they have not
    re-applied for the right.  But since everybody
    is supposed to get a letter, hopefully, we
    are in a position to fight that.

    "You can't nice these people to death."-- John Edwards

    by ge0rge on Tue Apr 08, 2008 at 06:52:52 PM PDT

  •  The other big question (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mariachi mama, MizC, ge0rge, soms

    you have to ask is: why were these people in jail in the first place?

    By far the greatest cause of incarceration in this country is the War on Drugs.  Putting addicts in jail instead of treatment is madness.  Allowing the immense, and immensely profitable, underground drug market to exist is costing lives every day.  

    No matter how much money and firepower we throw at the War on Drugs, the situation gets worse.  The laws of supply and demand are just too powerful to combat drug addiction at the supply side.  All that the draconian laws, harsh sentences, and SWAT teams accomplish is to cause the drug cartels and gangs to escalate their own level of violence.  There is too much profit in dealing drugs to stop it from happening.

    A much better idea would be to eliminate the reason this dangerous black market exists.  Namely, the fact that drugs are illegal.  When alcohol was illegal, the exact same thing happened.  Prohibition was repealed because people remembered what life was like before Prohibition, and they remembered that it had been better.

    A particularly nasty side effect of the War on Drugs has been the racial disparity regarding how the laws are enforced, leading to the disenfranchisement described in the diary.


    Time to end the drug war.

    by Sam from Ithaca on Tue Apr 08, 2008 at 06:54:04 PM PDT

    •  The fact that there is a racial disparity... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      justCal, Sam from Ithaca, soms

      ...has implications.  One of the
      implications is that if you are white,
      your race advantages you with respect to
      this nation's drug policy.
      You are certainly benefiting from being white
      if you have ever used drugs and NOT gotten caught,
      or gotten caught but not arrested, or arrested but
      not charged, or charged but not tried,
      or tried but not convicted, or convicted
      but sentenced to a lesser consequence
      than the average black man gets for that
      This is one reason why, when white Americans
      tell me that they didn't perpetrate slavery
      and shouldn't be billed for the costs of
      fixing it, I want to throw the book at them.  Several books, in fact.
      I will diary a reading list next week.

      "You can't nice these people to death."-- John Edwards

      by ge0rge on Tue Apr 08, 2008 at 07:02:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Right (0+ / 0-)

        From policing, to prosecution, to conviction, to sentencing, every aspect of the War on Drugs is racist.

        Police officers, from all appearances, are far more likely to aggressively patrol minority neighborhoods, to rely on anonymous tips in those neighborhoods, and to use heavy-handed tactics (which often result in innocent people getting killed) in those neighborhoods.

        Prosecutors go after minorities more often and ask for harsher sentences.

        Juries are more likely to convict minorities.

        Judges tend to give minorities worse sentences.

        All of this is documented here.

        And to add insult to injury, the people who are the most victimized by prohibition are disenfranchised so they can't even vote for the system to change in some states.  Grr!


        Time to end the drug war.

        by Sam from Ithaca on Tue Apr 08, 2008 at 07:25:58 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  This thread is too important... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mariachi mama, MizC, cactusflinthead, soms be HIJACKED into the same old tired
    argument about MI and FL.  Please say
    something about how your state handles
    prisoners' and felons' voting rights,
    if you know.  Massachusetts for a long
    time allowed prisoners to vote until
    they started actually lobbying and exercising
    the right intelligently, at which point
    it became easy for Republicans to demonize
    them and get it taken away.  In North Carolina,
    people serving time for a misdemeanor
    can vote from jail.

    "You can't nice these people to death."-- John Edwards

    by ge0rge on Tue Apr 08, 2008 at 06:55:25 PM PDT

  •  Strange.. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I see that this diary has 24+ comments but I can only look at 6 of them. :/

    "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." -Ghandi

    by Triscula on Tue Apr 08, 2008 at 07:13:34 PM PDT

  •  This issue is an electoral loser for the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BlueEngineerInOhio, GATXER

    Democrats. For years and years the Democrats battled and had to overcome the perception that they were "soft on crime". Frankly the real answer here is for these criminals not to become felons in the first place!

    •  Yet again (0+ / 0-)

      you are thinking in the framework of early 1990s DLC.  The whole "soft on crime" stuff is so 1980s/1990s.

      Senator Jim Webb held hearing last year on why there are so many people in prison, and what can be done to reduce it.  He called the incarceration experiment a travesty and a disaster.  

      Harry Reid and Arlen Specter (and Hillary Clinton cosponsored the bill) proposed allowing all felons who have completed their sentences to be allowed to vote in 2003.  
      The DLC racist scare tactics message might have been needed in the early 1990s, but are not needed today when suburbanites are now a Democratic leaning group and are on the way to being a Democratic stronghold.

      "The era of Scooter Libby justice, Brownie incompetence and Karl Rove politics will finally be over this year" Reject Marc Rich justice and Mark Penn politics.

      by IhateBush on Wed Apr 09, 2008 at 04:14:40 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Let's not lose those suburbanities (0+ / 0-)

        But I seriously have little sympathy for violent felons. The real answer is not to commit crime.

        •  We're not going to lose them (0+ / 0-)

          they aren't going to give a damn if people who have served their time are being integrated into society by being allowed to vote anymore.  Rehabilitation

          I think you are assuming that your personal views are the views of swing voters.  They aren't.  

          "The era of Scooter Libby justice, Brownie incompetence and Karl Rove politics will finally be over this year" Reject Marc Rich justice and Mark Penn politics.

          by IhateBush on Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 06:36:42 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  yes, but restoration of more than just voting (0+ / 0-)

    Imo, the last of a convicted felon's worries is voting.  Being able to get jobs, acquire loans, and so forth without discrimination would be just as important in a restoration of rights.

    IANAL, but I think we should be able to limit a felon's restrictions to what his crime was, to a large degree.  For example, the armed robbery felon shouldn't be able to buy arms or work in the armed forces or security, but after serving the time, s/he should be able to get a good job, education, and a house loan, as well as vote.

    If all those rights aren't more fully (and more automatically) restored, the right to vote wouldn't mean much.  Felons who've served their time need to be more fully integrated back into society before they can care enough about the society to vote in it.

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