Civil rights attorney and legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes about mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow. In her book of the same name, Alexander details how America’s criminal justice system functions as a de facto racial caste structure, not only imprisoning millions of black people, but also denying their rights as full citizens. One of these important rights is the ability to vote. All across the country, there are blacks who are banned from voting due to felony convictions.
In Kentucky, this is a major problem. According to ThinkProgress, one out of every four black voters in Kentucky is ineligible to vote—the highest rate in the country. Overall in the state, there are more than 312,000 people without access to the ballot, which translates to one out of every 11 adults. As ThinkProgress notes, “Kentucky is one of three states that currently has a lifetime ban keeping people with felony convictions — also known as returning citizens — from voting, and [a recent report from the Kentucky League of Women Voters] found that the state ranks third in the United States in rate of disenfranchisement.”
Three years ago, state lawmakers passed a bill that returned voting rights to some former felons with low-level convictions. It requires that their convictions be expunged first—a process that comes with a $500 fee. This is one of the most expensive expungement fees in the country. Unsurprisingly, this has not proven widely successful. According to the Kentucky League of Women Voters, only 2,032 voters have had their rights restored through this law.
To be sure, this is unfair and a violation of civil rights. Felon disenfranchisement only serves to punish the formerly incarcerated—multiple times. Once a person has served the required time and been released, they should be allowed to fully participate in society. Yet upon release, former felons often find it hard to access job training and education and obtain stable employment, housing, and other necessary services, making it hard to live and contributing to high rates of recidivism. Finally, under these archaic laws, they are also often barred from participating in voting—one of the most basic and fundamental rights of our democracy.
It is not accidental that so many of these felons are black people. The system is doing what is was designed to do. As Michelle Alexander notes, these are tactics that are aligned with the goals of the founding fathers of our nation—men who did not truly believe in the equality of all people. In her book’s introduction, Alexander writes, “Denying African Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the formation of the original union. Hundreds of years later, America is still not an egalitarian democracy.”
This past fall, Florida took steps to restore voting rights to former felons with the passage of a constitutional amendment that grants them the right to vote once all the terms of their sentence have been completed. Several states have attempted to follow suit. But there is still much confusion and disagreement on how to implement such laws. And Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia still have lifetime voting bans for persons with felony convictions. This is unlikely to change.
Felon disenfranchisement works to advantage the most powerful, privileged people in society. They don’t want people voting—especially the most marginalized among us. That’s what is so damning about this entire thing. The more things change, the more they stay the same.