published Saturday, February 15th, 2014

How unAmerican: 4 million without a vote even after their debt is paid

One of every 40 adults in America has lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction.

Nearly half of those disenfranchised are people who have completed their sentences, but they live in one of 11 states that withhold their right to vote even after they've "done their time." Tennessee and Alabama are among the 11 states.

And in Tennessee and Alabama -- as well as Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia -- more than 7 percent of the adult population cannot vote because they have been convicted of felony crimes, according to a report titled The Sentencing Project: State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010. The report was released in July 2012.

All told, 5.8 million Americans cannot vote because they are convicted felons. Only about one fourth of that total is currently incarcerated, meaning that over 4 million of the adults who have done their time and now live, work and pay taxes in their communities are banned from voting. And in some states, the ban is permanent. In most, it's difficult to get reversed.

A third of those disenfranchised voters are black -- 1 of every 13 blacks; a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans.

Can 4 million votes influence the outcome an election? Absolutely.

But as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier this week, the question of how long an ex-felon should lose the right to vote is more than a matter of elections. It's more than just about fairness to those who are released from prison.

"It's about who we are as a nation. It's about confronting, with clear eyes and in frank terms, disparities and divisions that are unworthy of the greatest justice system the world has ever known," Holder said at a civil rights conference at Georgetown University.

The United States is unique in the democratic world for barring people from voting in such large numbers, and Holder believes the laws stemmed from the late 1800s, when states tried to keep blacks from voting. He called for states to repeal the obstructive and outdated laws.

Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, says the web of state felon-voting laws are "anathema" to a democratic society and likely aid in recidivism.

"By sending a message of 'second-class citizenship,' these policies work against the goal of integrating citizens back into the community and are counterproductive for public safety goals," Mauer said.

But make no mistake, any efforts to change these laws -- especially in the South -- will run headlong into partisan politics.

Studies show that felons who have been denied the right to vote were far more likely to have voted for Democrats than for Republicans. In 2002, scholars at the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University concluded that the 2000 presidential election "would almost certainly have been reversed" had felons been allowed to vote. In Florida, the state that tipped that election, 10 percent of the population is ineligible to vote because of the ban on felons at the polls, according to Holder.

Indeed, this nation isn't seeing any rush to help progressive candidates at the polls. On the contrary, Republican-controlled general assemblies in Texas and North Carolina and other states are working to reduce early voting, impose voter-identification requirements, restrict voter registration, and draw districts to manipulate partisan power.

Especially in Southern states, general assemblies seem to be in a race to reinstate a Jim Crow era when poll taxes and other voter obstructions were the norm.

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