America is in crisis.
The country is facing a racial justice uprising and a deadly virus with a strong economic impact, which is disproportionately affecting the Black community. In a recent Medium post, former President Barack Obama said that voting has never mattered more than it does right now. “If we want to bring about real change,” he said, “then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.”
Since the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day, the protests that followed across the nation have continued with growing cries for criminal justice reform and protests against police brutality, racial isolation driven by systemic racism and hate crimes. We’re now two months away from one of the most consequential presidential elections of our time, and Nov. 3 should be a time where all citizens participate in democracy and have their voices heard. But not all voices will be allowed to speak with their vote, and those who face the biggest challenges are disproportionately Black men and women.
Criminal Disenfranchisement Laws
The democratic process of voting has long excluded people based on what is known as criminal disenfranchisement laws—meaning each state has regulations that strip a person’s right to vote if they have a past felony conviction. The details and impact of these laws depend on the state where the felony occurred. And to complicate matters, some state election officials are not adequately trained on their state laws are when it comes to the formerly incarcerated, making it harder for those who are disenfranchised to navigate the system.
6.1 Million Lost Votes
In the 2016 presidential election, the Black voter turnout rate fell from 66.6% in 2012 to 59.6% (765,000 Blacks did not vote)—a first in 20 years. In the same year, a study by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice reform, found that 6.1 million Americans—2.5% of the nation’s voting-age population—were unable to vote because of state laws (each state has their own). With one in 13 Blacks (a rate the report found to be four times greater than non-Blacks) unable to vote because they have a past felony conviction.
The ballots of the Black community are so important that the sitting president noted how it led to his victory. President Trump touted the lack of Black voter turnout—who currently make up 12.5% of the electorate among eligible voters—following his 2016 victory, saying they “didn’t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn’t come out. And that was big—so thank you to the African-American community.”
Blacks Face Tougher Charges
One of the underlying reasons African Americans constitute such a large percentage of the disenfranchised population is sentencing. Black people are more likely to be convicted of a felony than whites who commit the same crime, with lower-income and Blacks being disproportionately impacted nationally. For example, a 2017 report found that whites in Wisconsin were 25% more likely than Blacks, who committed the same crime, to have their charges dropped or reduced to a lesser charge.
Other reasons Black voter turnout can be low is due to systemic racism and voter suppression in the form of added barriers to voting: cutting early voting, closing polling places in predominantly Black communities, and having stricter voter ID requirements.
State Laws Are Changing, Some Still Disproportionately Affect Blacks
The Sentencing Project report also found that Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia make up over 7% of that disenfranchised population unable to vote nationally. And Florida alone accounted for 27% of the total national disenfranchised population.
Last year, over 15 states barred people on parole or probation from voting, and ten states (including Florida and Iowa) banned Black people with felony convictions from voting.
As of last month, no states have a complete ban on voting for the formerly incarcerated, though nine states still hold the power to strip such people of their right to vote permanently on a case by case basis. For example, in Alabama and Delaware, if a person commits sexual offenses or takes a life, they cannot get their rights back. In other states, like Florida, it depends on the conviction, required restitution, court fees, and fines.
Nineteen states, such as Nebraska and South Carolina, and Wisconsin, restore the right to vote for people after prison, parole, and probation times are completed. The right to vote is restored after prison time is completed in 18 states for the formerly incarcerated, including in D.C., Hawaii, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In California and Connecticut, the right to vote is restored after prison, and parole times have been completed. People can vote from prison in Maine and Vermont.
Even When They Can, Not Everyone Votes
Revamped laws aside, some activists still argue that any form of felony disenfranchisement is voter suppression. But experts say it’s not so black and white because, for voter suppression to occur, the voter’s rights must already exist.
A report by political scientists Marc Meredith and Michael Morse found that even when voting rights are restored, only between 8% and 14% end up voting. And in the two states where voting is allowed from prison, Maine and Vermont,the turnout is minimal. This perpetuates the stereotype, dating back to the Reconstruction era myths (where Blacks were given stringent voter ID laws and literacy tests), that even when Blacks can, they don’t vote.
One reason is that many of the formerly incarcerated fear being targeted as ex-offenders or penalized due to unclear voting laws.
“Given that the downsides of voting illegally could be so harsh, relative to the benefit,” Meredith said in a recent interview, “some formerly incarcerated people refuse to take the risk of voting even if they think they are eligible”.