Barring Democracy

Some four million US citizens, most of them minorities, are denied the right to vote because they were once convicted of felonies. The growing number of disenfranchised Americans may be helping elect Republicans, from state legislatures to the White House.

| Tue Oct. 17, 2000 3:00 AM EDT

Malik Aziz, 42, is a law-abiding citizen of the United States, a Philadelphia resident and a political activist. But until last month, he wasn't allowed to vote.

Aziz is an ex-con with several drug-related convictions behind him. After his release from state prison in 1997, he launched a respectable career in local politics. In Pennsylvania, however, if you weren't registered to vote when you went into prison, you couldn't vote for a full five years after you finished serving your time.

"I'm a law-abiding citizen," Aziz fumed last summer. "I have a job, I pay taxes. I made a mistake and now I want to rectify the wrongs."

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Aziz has since won back his voting rights, because a Pennsylvania appellate court struck down the state's voting restriction on ex-cons in September. But across the country, millions of other citizens convicted of felonies -- including many long since released from prison -- are not so lucky. And many of those disenfranchised this way are minorities -- so many, in fact, that the impact of the laws suspending their voting rights is beginning to resemble that of Jim Crow laws.

Last June in Hillsborough County, Fla. alone, 3,000 citizens received letters from the state's Division of Elections informing them that they would not be allowed to vote because they had one or more felony conviction in their pasts. All told, some three-quarters of a million Floridians, according to recent estimates, will not be permitted to help choose a president next month. Add Texas, and there are well over 1.2 million disenfranchised people living in just two states.

The Sentencing Project, in conjunction with Human Rights Watch, published a study two years ago revealing that 25 percent of all black men in the seven states surveyed had been permanently disenfranchised through entanglement in the criminal justice system.

Now, new figures suggest the situation is even worse. According to an upcoming report by University of Minnesota sociology professor Christopher Uggen and Northwestern University's Jeff Manza, more than four million Americans are prevented by the laws of the states they live in from voting. In most states, such laws apply to those currently in prison, on probation, or on parole.

But in 13 other states, the disenfranchisement is permanent. A fourteenth, Delaware, also permanently disenfranchises certain categories of felons. Serve your time, pay your debt to society, come out of prison, get a job, pay taxes, send your kids to school -- no matter what you do, you still won't regain that most basic right of citizenship. You will be subject to the laws of the land, but you will have no input into the decision-making system out of which those laws emerge.

Already in 10 states, according to Uggen and Manza's report, between 4 percent and 6 percent of the adult population is barred from voting. And despite the Pennsylvania court ruling, with tough-on-crime politics still dominating national discourse, other states are also looking toward disenfranchisement policies: In November, voters in the traditionally liberal state of Massachusetts will decide on a ballot initiative aiming to prevent incarcerated felons from voting while in prison.

Several legal challenges have been mounted to the practice outside of Pennsylvania, with no results. A suit in Mississippi has failed, and others in Washington and Mississippi haven't yet produced any results. A bill to change Florida's disenfranchisement laws has gathered dust in a general assembly committee for the past three years.

The hammer of these laws has fallen hardest on black and Latino communities, source of a hugely disproportionate number of American prisoners. Fully 35 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed to end Jim Crow's reign over the ballot box, nearly 7 percent of the African American population nationwide is disenfranchised. And in seven states, more than one quarter of black men are now permanently deprived of the right to vote.

Many of the felony convictions which have since left these citizens voteless grew out of the war on drugs, which has helped send quadruple the number of prisoners in the US since 1980 to nearly two million.

Even non-southern states such as Minnesota have seen a huge percentage of their minority populations disenfranchised. In another not-yet-published paper, Uggen and two colleagues estimate that while Minnesota only deprives about one percent of adults of the vote, almost 10 percent of the state's small black population is currently forbidden the ballot.

"It's just more punishment after you come out of prison," Aziz says. "Once a person has done his time, why should you further punish him? "

Because most of those who can't vote are poor and/or people of color -- exactly the demographic groups most likely to vote Democrat -- many close elections won by Republicans in recent years might have turned out very differently had ex-felons had the right to vote.

Indeed, factoring in what percentage of a population matching the economic, racial, and educational backgrounds of the disenfranchised population is actually likely to vote, and looking at the percentages of these votes likely to go to each of the two major parties in any given election year, Uggen and Manza calculated that four Senate seats won by Republicans between 1988 and 1998 would have been won by Democrats had so many residents not been disenfranchised. That four seat difference may have meant Democratic control of the Senate through the 1990s.

There may be an even greater impact on the local level: had just a fraction of the more than 200,000 disenfranchised potential-voters in Alabama, including nearly 100,000 African Americans, been able to vote, three crucial state races would likely have been won by Democrats in 1998. For that matter, according to Manza and Uggen's research, had as many people been incarcerated and disenfranchised in 1960 as in 2000, Richard Nixon would have beaten Kennedy to the presidency.

It is an issue you would expect the Democrats to be hammering on: Poor people, many from racial minorities, denied the right to vote, skewing the political system toward the Republican Party. With the presidential race still too close to call, less than a month before election day, mass disenfranchisement in toss-up states such as Florida could end up playing a crucial role in determining who becomes the next president. If Bush wins by as small an Electoral College majority as did Kennedy 40 years ago, restrictions in ballot access, especially in the South, may have made the difference.

Yet because politicians of all political stripes are terrified of appearing "soft on crime," few Democrats, with the exception of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), have taken up this cause. Conyers, a liberal politician from Michigan, has been pushing a bill that would override state voter restrictions and allow disenfranchised ex-felons to vote in national elections. But despite 26 co-sponsors, the bill has languished in the Subcommittee on the Constitution, and shows no signs of passing anytime soon.

The most recent legal challenge came on Sept. 21, when the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice filed suit in Florida's courts arguing that the state's disenfranchisement laws are unconstitutional. According to Uggen and Manza's research, more than 6 percent of the state's total voting-age population can't vote. "It's creating a democratic crisis when such a large group in society are not given the right to vote," say Brennan Center attorney Gillian Metzger. The last time so many blacks were legally prevented from voting, Metzger believes, "was before the Voting Rights Act, when you had literacy tests and poll taxes and so on." All of these laws were overturned -- except for the web of laws, created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, relating to those convicted of felonies.

According to historian Andrew Shapiro, these laws were specifically designed by ante-bellum southern politicians to bar blacks from the ballot box. Indeed, when Alabama adopted such a law in 1901, John Knox, the politician presiding over the constitutional convention, stated that the aim of such provisions was to help preserve white supremacy without directly challenging the constitution of the United States.

Supporters of the disenfranchisement laws say the laws aren't about race, but accountability. "The purpose is to try to deter people from committing crime," explains Alabama state representative Phil Crigler. "You're not going to go back to life as usual. It's just an extension of the punishment. With all the things accessible to criminals today, like plea-bargaining, good-time credits, it's almost like there's no consequences to committing crime. I don't believe that's right."

As more and more ex-felons emerge from the penal system, and as more people go into prison, the cumulative disenfranchisement numbers, both nationally and at state levels, will only get worse. "We're mass-producing ex-felons," Uggen asserts. "Those numbers are going to be staggering."

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