Political Prisoners

Minorities struggle to break free of felon voting bans

If that analysis prevails on the national level, then the only recourse for the felon plaintiffs will be to lobby Congress to pass new legislation or to mobilize, state by state, for local law change. But not only are felons a far from popular bunch, they are not—since they cannot vote—a political constituency.

At its core, the contest over felon disenfranchisement is a debate about whether and how to reinforce minority voices in American democracy.

Voters at the voting booths, ca. 1945
photo: Copyprint. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. (9-17) Courtesy of the NAACP
Voters at the voting booths, ca. 1945

The problem is obvious just in the way that felon disenfranchisement actually works. Voters elected the legislators who enacted the felon voting bans that have robbed the very groups most affected by the bans of the opportunity to vote them down one day. It is a vicious cycle of shrinking political participation, with minority groups pushed to the outside.

If that shrinking circle of decision making makes felon voting bans seem less than legitimate, it is natural to wonder about the legitimacy of other policies—education, social services, policing—that heavily affect these disenfranchised minority groups and their run-ins with the criminal justice system.

Supporters of felon disenfranchisement cast convicts as calculating, immoral individuals whose race is beside the point. But the disenfranchised and their advocates are struggling to show that criminal matters are a creature of the political system, and that the minority status of the disenfranchised therefore matters a lot in the context of group politics. (An entire movement has even cropped up against the policy of counting felon bodies—for allocation of services and elected government seats—in the rural, white districts where prisons are typically located, instead of in the convicts' urban hometowns. Critics claim that the approach adds insult to injury. Not only are minority communities robbed of voting power by felon disenfranchisement, but they are further robbed of their share in government attention by this counting method.)

This debate over minority political power is timely, since key provisions of the Voting Rights Act are set to expire in 2007 unless Congress reauthorizes them. Many disappointed voices say that the civil rights movement's crowning document has failed to achieve the racial equality imagined back in 1965. The act has become just words on a page, they say, while the cultural commitment to breaking racial restrictions has dissipated.

Whether federal voting rights law can be resurrected to vindicate racial minorities is the key question in the felon disenfranchisement cases up for possible review by the Supreme Court. The outcome will depend on whether the court looks through the lens of minority political access or merely views the issue as a raceless criminal matter.

The court may avoid jumping into this democracy debate altogether this term. But everyone knows that it is not a question of if, but when.

One source for data and analysis about felon disenfranchisement is the Sentencing Project (sentencingproject.org), a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank. Information on legal activity and organizing can be found at Right to Vote (righttovote.org).

Research assistance: Ben Shestakofsky

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