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October 5, 2016

Making an election-season case to end felon disenfranchisement

Today's New York Times has this timely editorial headlined "The Movement to End Racist Voting Laws." Here are excerpts:

This year, state laws will bar nearly six million Americans with criminal convictions from voting in the presidential election. About 4.4 million of those are people who are not in prison but are still denied the right to vote.  While felon disenfranchisement laws have a history in many parts of the country, the harshest are found in the South, where they were central to the architecture of Jim Crow.

These laws date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when states in the former Confederacy — from Texas to Florida — set out to reverse the effects of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote.  Felony voting restrictions formed the foundation of this effort, but the Southern states quickly reinforced barriers to voting with poll taxes, literacy tests, white-only primaries, registration restrictions, and exemptions for whites from measures created to keep blacks from voting.

Poll taxes and literacy tests were swept away after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  But disenfranchisement of people with criminal records remained, and it is just beginning to attract the attention it deserves.  Last week, for example, Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a bill granting voting rights to people convicted of felonies who are being held in county-run jails.  In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is battling with the legislature over his plan for restoring the voting rights of tens of thousands of former inmates.

Also last week, black citizens who were denied the vote in Alabama brought a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s disenfranchisement statute, a move that has started a broader discussion about the racist origins of such laws and their devastating effect on African-American communities.  In 1901, Alabama’s constitutional convention — convened for the purpose of establishing “white supremacy in this state” and staving off the “menace of Negro domination” at the ballot box — expanded an existing disenfranchisement law to include any offense “involving moral turpitude.”  Among the disqualifying offenses were vagrancy, adultery and wife beating, which were more likely to be prosecuted against blacks....

That many states continue to view people who have served time in prison as unfit to vote is a stain on the idea of democracy.  The Alabama law and its history display this shameful truth.

October 5, 2016 at 08:47 AM | Permalink

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