Felon disenfranchisement unjust

Al Gore could have been elected with the help of felons in the 2000 presidential election. Yet felon and ex-felon voter disenfranchisement prevented it.

When the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted in 1870, these words became law: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” The words “previous condition of servitude” were inserted to ensure that former slaves be guaranteed the right to vote. But it would seem that the phrase should apply at least to ex-felons, if not to currently incarcerated felons as well.

Nevertheless, presently only two states – Maine and Vermont – allow convicted felons to vote. Several years ago, the state count was at four, yet in 1998, roughly 80 percent of the Utah electorate voted to strip felons of their right to vote, and in the 2000 election Massachusetts voters disenfranchised their prisoners as well. In 10 states, all in the South and West – Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia and Wyoming – criminals who have fully served their sentences and are out of prison are not restored the right to vote.

A new study examines the effects of such broad disenfranchisement. Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza of Northwestern University present their findings in an article entitled “Democratic Contraction? Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States,” published in the December 2002 issue of the American Sociological Review. The researchers conclude that criminal disenfranchisement has had a huge effect on the outcomes of elections, tipping the balance in senatorial and presidential elections alike.

For every year there was a senatorial or presidential election, Uggen and Manza determined the number of disenfranchised felons and ex-felons, estimated voter turnout and then predicted which candidates the felons likely would have voted for. They made these predictions based on known characteristics such as the felons’ age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, income and education. They concluded that since 1978, the results of at least seven closely contended senatorial elections and one presidential election have been altered by the rampant disenfranchisement.

Since the prison population in the U.S. is overwhelmingly made up of the poor working-class and of Black, Latino, Native American and other groups that traditionally vote Democratic, the conclusion is not difficult to make: these laws have tipped many elections favorably in Republican candidates’ favor. And because of the well- known advantage of incumbency, Uggen and Manza “estimate that the Democratic Party would have gained parity in 1984 and held majority control of the U.S. Senate from 1986 to the present.” Yet we have been denied this outcome because of our socially backwards voting policy. Trent Lott certainly made his views on the matter quite clear: “You know, if felons and ex-felons were guaranteed the right to vote, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today.”

And what of our neighbors to the North? As it turns out, on Oct. 31, 2002, Canada’s Supreme Court granted all current and former prisoners the right to vote in a tight 5-4 ruling. “The legitimacy of the law and the obligation to obey the law flow directly from the right of every citizen to vote,” wrote Chief Justice Beverly McLauchlin in the majority opinion. “The idea that certain classes of people are not morally fit or morally worthy to vote and to participate in the law-making process is ancient and obsolete.”

So why does no one seem realize this in our country? Actually, many people do, and they are actively fighting to reverse this wrong. For example, the prison activist group PrisonSucks.com makes available a wealth of information not only on felon disenfranchisement, but on much else that is wrong with the prison system in America. Or consider Jon Yount, a prisoner in Pennsylvania who in 1998 published a piece entitled “Felon Disenfranchisement: Pennsylvania’s Sinister Face of Vote Dilution,” which led to the dismantling of Pennsylvania’s 5-year waiting period for ex-felon voter registration.

Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, it is undeniable that this kind of disenfranchisement is outrageous, immoral and unconstitutional. In the words of Chief Justice McLauchlin, “To deny prisoners the right to vote is to lose an important means of teaching them democratic values and social responsibility. This history of democracy is the history of progressive enfranchisement. The universal franchise has become, at this point in time, an essential part of democracy.” I agree.