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Millions of African Americans will be disenfranchised on Election Day

August 5, 2008

Henrie M. Treadwell, Ph.D.

by Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell

Atlanta (BlackNews.com) – When Election Day arrives in November, the state of Virginia will likely play a huge role in determining whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain is the next president of the United States. Unfortunately, the vote tally from the Old Dominion will be illegitimate because the state will disenfranchise nearly 350,000 individuals who are barred from voting because of felony convictions.

Across the country, Obama’s unique ability to energize young, African American and independent voters is turning traditional “red states,” such as Virginia, into potential Democratic pick-ups. But as attention shifts to these new swing states, it also raises awareness of the restrictive voting eligibility laws that will disproportionately prevent many Blacks from participating in the election.

Nationwide there are several million people who are ineligible to vote because of various state laws that restrict voting by ex-felons released from prison. If those currently serving time for felony convictions are added to ex-felons released from prison, a total of 5.3 million people won’t be allowed to vote. Clearly, this disenfranchisement could impact the outcome of the election since the vote in swing states will be close. This could hurt Obama because a disproportionate number of ex-felons are African Americans and Blacks have overwhelmingly supported his campaign.

Virginia, for instance, is one of two states – Kentucky being the other – that does not allow ex-felons to vote under any circumstances. Currently, there are 340,522 people living in Virginia communities and paying taxes who cannot vote, according to the Sentencing Project, a national organization seeking criminal justice reforms. Some states allow ex-felons to vote, but disqualify those on probation or parole. In total, 48 out of the 50 states have felon disenfranchisement laws.

Moreover, while health experts have identified prison inmates and ex-convicts returning to their communities as people often facing major health problems, many will not be able to vote even as creating a new health policy in America looms as one of the most important issues in the presidential campaign.

Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, emphasized that point: “The main problem is that we have a very important election coming up and 5 million people won’t be able to vote because of previous or current convictions. They legally cannot vote.”

In Florida, another key state in November, 1,089,911 people can’t vote because the state places voting restrictions on ex-felons released from prison, as well as those on probation and parole. There are also a number of disenfranchised ex-felons in other key states, such as New Jersey with 99,136, North Carolina with 37,352, Georgia with 232,972, Louisiana with 59,971, New Mexico with 10,955, Colorado with 6,920, Missouri with 60,428 and Nevada with 32,440.

Despite voting rights legislation that was designed to ensure that minorities can vote, the felony disenfranchisement laws remain as a potent example of structural racism.

While felon disenfranchisement laws were on the books prior to the Civil War, once the 15th Amendment allowed Blacks to vote, the laws were updated to include the types of crimes most often committed by Blacks back then, such as robbery and vagrancy. Today, the felony disenfranchisement laws have re-emerged as the largest suppressor of minority voting.

One major misconception is the belief that people of color are impacted more because they commit more crimes. The reality, however, is that the nation’s criminal justice system arrests and prosecutes people of color at higher rates than whites, and minorities receive longer prison sentences after convictions for the same crimes as whites. For instance, African Americans make up 14 percent of the nation’s drug users, yet our state prisons are filled with Blacks convicted of drug related crimes. According to the Americans Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Blacks are 56 percent of those in state prisons for drug crimes.

Another issue is that the definition of a felony varies from state to state, and in some places, such as Mississippi, writing a bad check is classified as a felony and can prevent someone from being eligible to vote.

Still, there has been some progress. Florida Gov. Charlie Christ enacted rules last year that made it easier for more than 100,000 former prisoners to regain their voting rights, but the state still has a million felons who are unable to vote. In Virginia, Gov. Tim Kaine is seeking to restore voting rights for ex-convicts, and other efforts are underway across the country.

Supporters of the disenfranchisement laws have never presented any evidence that restricting the right to vote deters crime in any way. It is an undemocratic practice that is followed by few other democracies in the world. Throughout Europe, most nations allow criminals to vote while they are incarcerated and for those that don’t, voting rights are usually fully restored upon release.

As voters express their desire for change in America’s presidential campaign, part of the change should be ensuring that all Americans can execute their constitutional right to vote.

Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell, associate director of development at the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine, is also director of Community Voices, a non-profit working to improve health services and health care access for all Americans. She can be reached through Mike Frisby at mike@frisbyassociates.com or (202) 625-4328.

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