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February 29, 2020

"Why Shouldn't Prisoners Be Voters?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this New Yorker piece by Daniel Gross. The lengthy piece, which is part of the magazine's The Future of Democracy series, is worth a full read.  The subheading captures the piece's themes: "Americans take for granted that they have a right to vote. The situation of people in prison suggests otherwise."  Here is an excerpt:

Two centuries ago, only Connecticut barred citizens with criminal convictions from voting. The state’s constitution, which was ratified in 1818, declared that a man’s right to vote could be “forfeited by a conviction of bribery, forgery, perjury, duelling, fraudulent bankruptcy, theft, or other offence for which an infamous punishment is inflicted.”  In the years before the Civil War, seventeen states joined Connecticut in passing some form of felony disenfranchisement. Then, in the decade after the abolition of slavery, while the national movement for black suffrage was building momentum, ten more states, mostly in the South, quickly adopted them.  The same period saw a sharp increase, in many states, in the incarceration of African-Americans. (Although the vast majority of people in prison cannot vote, the census counts them as living where they are incarcerated, shifting political representation to the places that have prisons.)

Many state lawmakers were explicit about the racist motivations for these changes. In 1901, Alabama Democrats, who had a history of election tampering, called a convention to rewrite the state constitution. “The justification for whatever manipulation of the ballot box that has occurred in this State has been the menace of negro domination,” John B. Knox, the president of the convention, said in his opening remarks. “If we should have white supremacy, we must establish it by law—not by force or fraud.” The resulting constitution named twenty convictions, from robbery to forgery to vagrancy, that would strip men of their right to vote. The same document discriminated against black voters with poll taxes and literacy tests.

Felony-disenfranchisement laws spread across the country: by the nineteen-seventies, forty-six states had them. Massachusetts was the last state to join the group, passing a constitutional amendment in 2000 with more than sixty per cent of the vote.  (The Prison Policy Initiative observed that it was “the first time that the Massachusetts constitution has been amended to take away rights from a group of people.”)  Three years later, three researchers published a paper in the American Journal of Sociology showing that the most stringent of these laws were to be found in states with many potential voters of color.  In Tennessee, where citizens lose the franchise for life if they are convicted of crimes such as forgery, sodomy, or receiving stolen property, a fifth of African-Americans are barred from voting, according to the Sentencing Project.  (The same was true in Virginia and Alabama until recently, when the Democratic governors of those states restored the franchise to large numbers of citizens.)

Vermont and Maine, the only states that have never disenfranchised prisoners, are also the whitest states in the nation. Less than four per cent of Vermonters, and less than five per cent of Mainers, are people of color. “I do think that it’s not a coincidence that it’s only Maine and Vermont that allow inmate voting,” Emily Tredeau, a supervising attorney at the Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Office, told me.  “White voters will give pause before they disenfranchise other white people.” Joseph Jackson, a formerly incarcerated activist, added, “Mainers look at Maine folks that are incarcerated as though they are not other.”  (While the prison population in Maine is mostly white, it is significantly less white than the state as a whole: nearly twenty per cent of those incarcerated in Maine are people of color.)

February 29, 2020 at 01:30 PM | Permalink

Comments

Of course, for more serious crimes, the early states did cut off the right to vote -- they did so by executing the offender! So the move from actual death to civic death can be seen as a mitigation of punishment. And it seems a bare majority of the 34 states at the start of the Civil War had disenfranchisement laws.

I am not a fan of a lot of disenfranchisement laws, but historical practice wouldn't support allowing, e.g., murderers and rapists to vote.

Posted by: Jason | Feb 29, 2020 10:21:02 PM

We, already, have enough crooks in politics.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Mar 1, 2020 8:44:39 AM

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