Voting rights advocates have drawn national attention in recent years to how conservative whites have extensively used restrictive voting laws like voter ID in a pernicious effort to prevent disproportionately minority and low-income voters from exercising their right to vote. However, one type of voting restriction simply hasn’t received the attention it deserves. As the Sentencing Project’s 2016 data report lays out in detail, roughly 6.1 million Americans are disenfranchised because of past felony convictions. Most shockingly, half of the disenfranchised have completely finished serving out their sentences.
The states with the harshest restrictions are predominantly Southern and have large black populations, while the two whitest states, Maine and Vermont, let even inmates vote. As the Sentencing Project illustrates with this cartogram, those Southern states have a disproportionate share of the nation’s disenfranchised voters. States began to disenfranchise those with felony convictions shortly after the Civil War and during Jim Crow. In places like Virginia, the sponsors explicitly promised that it would be a way to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor.” These bygone laws were born to serve no other purpose except white supremacy.
And indeed, one of every 13 African Americans is disenfranchised nationwide—roughly four times the rate of whites—thanks in large part to our racially discriminatory criminal justice system. As the above map indicates, that includes a staggering one in four African Americans in Kentucky, and one in five in Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. Those four states disenfranchise some or almost all of those with felony convictions, even after they have completely served their sentences.
The pervasive racial and class disparities in felony disenfranchisement help swing elections, too, thanks to our racially polarized politics. In fact, George W. Bush never would have become president without it, and the practice consistently gives Republicans a boost in close races, possibly making the difference in key races like the Florida’s 2014 gubernatorial election. Unsurprisingly, Republicans in several states like Kentucky and Virginia have shamefully fought to roll back Democratic efforts to curtail these racist Jim Crow-era restrictions.
Fortunately, Democrats and progressives have been tackling the gross injustices of racially biased felony disenfranchisement and have made key gains in 2016. Maryland’s Democratic legislature overrode their Republican governor’s veto to restore voting rights to disenfranchised citizens still on parole or probation. Virginia’s Democratic governor overcame strident opposition from Republican lawmakers to restore voting rights via executive order to those who have fully served their sentences. And California restored voting rights to those serving time for low-level felonies and to some currently on probation.
Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court upheld the ability of states to disenfranchise those with felony convictions in a 1974 ruling called Richardson v. Ramirez. Nonetheless, with Democrats poised to install a liberal-leaning Supreme Court majority for the first time in five decades following 2016’s elections, it’s possible the justices will revisit this issue in the coming years due to its gross racial inequities. Yet even if a future court fails to overturn four decades of precedent, Democrats can continue to push for congressional and state legislative action to lessen these restrictions.
Jim Crow-era voting laws have no place in modern America, and they are an international embarrassment. Indeed, many comparable democracies such as Canada have no voting restrictions on those with felony convictions because they view the right to vote as so fundamental to democracy. It’s long past time we amend our constitution to state explicitly and unequivocally that all American adult citizens have the inalienable right to vote, putting an end to felony disenfranchisement once and for all.