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Why it's time to end felony disenfranchisement

News & Commentary  |  By Lewis Webb, Jr., Oct 25, 2018

Volunteers with a voter education and registration campaign in New York City in 2017. 

Photo: AFSC / New York

One in 13 African Americans—2.2 million people—are barred from voting because of a felony conviction.

Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo used his executive power to restore the right to vote to people released from prison after a felony conviction. In doing so, he boldly—and rightfully—did an end-around the State Constitution, which bars people on parole from voting, and the Republican-led state Senate, which continued to support felony disenfranchisement despite its clear, disparate impact on communities of color.  

It’s time for other states to follow New York’s example. Felony disenfranchisement is the U.S.’s longest-standing form of voter suppression. Coupled with 40 years of mass incarceration, felony disenfranchisement has silenced the African-American’s political voice in ways that eclipse 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 vote from their prison cells, the denial is devastating and far reaching. In Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia, people with felony convictions can lose the right to vote for the rest of their life. Across the country, more than six million people are denied their right to vote simply because of past convictions—non-votes that have and will continue to impact local, state, and national elections.  

According to The Sentencing Project: "One study found that disenfranchisement policies likely affected the results of seven U.S. Senate races from 1970 to 1998, as well as the hotly contested 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election. If disenfranchised voters in Florida alone had been permitted to vote in 2000, Bush’s narrow victory 'would almost certainly have been reversed.'”

The impacts of these disenfranchisement laws on Black and poor communities cannot be overstated. 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.

Voter registration drive in New York City. Photo: AFSC/New York

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 are disenfranchised, their children and grandchildren become less politically engaged and don’t vote, their communities lose out on needed resources, and American democracy is tarnished.

Felony disenfranchisement harms people on an individual level, as well. For many people released from prison struggling to rejoin the free-world community, it results in a diminished sense of belonging that hinders reintegration.  

When I think of those individuals, I think of people like Chris Payton. Every summer, AFSC’s New York office holds a voter education and registration campaign, canvassing communities of color and encouraging as many people as we can to register and vote.

Chris was one of our interns in 2016. He was not able to cast a vote in the Nov. 8th election that led to the election of President Trump. Not because of apathy or better things to do, but because he was still on parole.

Although Chris had been released from prison two years earlier, had a job, and was a graduate student in social work at Columbia University, he was on parole and therefore barred from voting in New York State.

This injustice must stop. We must make ending felony and all forms of disenfranchisement a priority. We must support state movement toward ending this injustice like The Voting Restoration and Democracy Act of 2018 in California, where over 200,000 people are subject to felony disenfranchisement, and an upcoming ballot initiative in Florida, where voters will decide whether to amend their state constitution and grant the right to vote to more than 1.5 million people convicted of a felony. 

It’s time to end felony disenfranchisement in the United States. As we head to the polls in New York, Florida, and states across the country in this critical election year, let’s ensure we elect leaders who will work toward restoring the right to vote to all, as demanded by a true democracy.

About the Author

Lewis Webb is the Healing Justice program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in New York. After graduating from law school, Lewis has dedicated his entire professional career to criminal justice issues. At AFSC, Lewis focuses on decreasing New York’s prison population by addressing paths to incarceration and increasing opportunities for release through sentencing and parole reform. 

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