In November, many of us will cast the most important votes of our lives while millions of other Americans will once again be denied that right. Today six million Americans are barred from exercising their right to vote because they have felony convictions. Most are Black and living in poverty.
While several states have made some significant reforms over the years, felony disenfranchisement remains the longest-standing form of voter suppression in the U.S. And it’s past time for us to end it once and for all.
Coupled with more than 40 years of mass incarceration, felony disenfranchisement has silenced the African-American’s political voice in ways that echo the “Black codes” of the 1860s and the Jim Crow laws of the 1950s. Today, one in 13 African-Americans are denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project.
The injustice of felony disenfranchisement has penetrated the electoral process in all but two states in the U.S. Outside of Maine and Vermont, where people can vote from their prison cells, the denial of this fundamental right is devastating and far reaching. Political engagement is quashed, and political strength is decimated—resulting in perpetual and intentional powerlessness of people of color and the poor. This strategic incapacitation of people fuels continued poverty, is driven by systemic racism, and stymies notions of equal and human rights.
Not only does felony disenfranchisement contribute to the class and race bias in the electorate, it has generational impacts. As more and more African-Americans and other people of color are disenfranchised, their children and grandchildren become less politically engaged and don’t vote, and their communities continue to lose out on needed resources.
Until we restore the right to vote to all, our elections will be undemocratic—and the results illegitimate.
Several states have made progressive reforms to address felony disenfranchisement in recent years. Not only is it critical that we build on those reforms, we must ensure they are implemented as intended. In 2018, for example, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to restore the right to vote to more than a million people with felony convictions who had been subject to lifetime disenfranchisement. But last year, the governor signed into law the equivalent of a poll tax to disenfranchise them again.
In 2019, we saw progress made in other states:
- Nevada restored the right to vote to anyone convicted of a felony upon release from prison, applying to an estimated 77,000 people.
- Colorado restored voting rights to people on parole—about 11,467 individuals.
- New Jersey restored voting rights to more than 80,000 residents on probation or parole.
These policy changes are steps in the right direction. What happens in 2020 and beyond is up to us.
This summer, more than a dozen young people will join efforts to end felony disenfranchisement by taking part in AFSC’s Liberation Summer Advocacy Camp in New York City. In partnership with Let NY Vote, campers will learn how to advocate against felony disenfranchisement and develop a social media campaign to register formerly incarcerated people to vote.
As millions of people across this country continue their struggle to be recognized, I’m reminded of the words of my friend Larry White. Larry voted for the first time at age 77 after over 40 years of being disenfranchised. He told me, “I now matter, my opinion counts.”
Let’s end this injustice now.
Here’s what you can do today:
Take action and tell your governor: The right to vote should never be taken away! Spread the word by sharing our action on social media.
During election season, you have a unique opportunity to get candidates on the record about issues that are important to you—and to influence their opinions. You can do this by seeking out a candidate for any public office; asking them where they stand on issues you care about, including ending felony disenfranchisement; and documenting their responses to share with the public.
Here’s a sample script you can use:
“Here in [your state], many people are barred from exercising their right to vote because of involvement in the criminal justice system. I believe the right to vote should never be taken away. Will you protect our right to vote by working to end felony disenfranchisement?”
Visit afsc.org/birddogging for resources.