As I raced into our TV studio for our Super Tuesday morning-after show, I was excited. Across the country, initial reports indicated there was unprecedented voter participation, at least in the Democratic primaries, several times higher than in previous elections. For years I have covered countries like Haiti, where people risk death to vote, while the U.S. has one of the lowest participation rates in the industrialized world. Could it be this year would be different?
Then I bumped into a friend and asked if he had voted. "I can't vote," he said, "because I did time in prison." I asked him if he would have voted. "Sure I would have. Because then I'm not just talking junk, I'm doing something about it."
Felony disenfranchisement is the practice by state governments of barring people convicted of a felony from voting, even after they have served their time. In Virginia and Kentucky, people convicted of any felony can never vote again (this would include "Scooter" Libby, even though he never went to jail, unless he is pardoned). Eight other states have permanent felony disenfranchisement laws, with some conditions that allow people to rejoin the voter rolls: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Wyoming.
Disenfranchisement-people being denied their right to vote-takes many forms, and has a major impact on electoral politics. In Ohio in 2004, stories abounded of inoperative voting machines, too few ballots or too few voting machines. Then there was Florida in 2000. Many continue to believe that the election was thrown to George W. Bush by Ralph Nader, who got about 97,000 votes in Florida. Ten times that number of Floridians are prevented from voting at all. Why? Currently, more than 1.1 million Floridians have been convicted of a felony and thus aren't allowed to vote. We can't know for sure how they would have voted, but as scholar, lawyer and activist Angela Davis said recently in a speech honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Mobile, Ala., "If we had not had the felony disenfranchisement that we have, there would be no way that George Bush would be in the White House."
Since felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects African-American and Latino men in the U.S., and since these groups overwhelmingly vote Democratic, the laws bolster the position of the Republican Party. The statistics are shocking. Ryan King, policy analyst with The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., summarized the latest:
About 5.3 million U.S. citizens are ineligible to vote due to felony disenfranchisement; 2 million of them are African-American. Of these, 1.4 million are African-American men, which translates into an incredible 13 percent of that population, a rate seven times higher than in the overall population. Forty-eight states have some version of felony disenfranchisement on the books. All bar voting from prison, then go on to bar participation while on parole or probation. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote from behind the walls, as does Canada and a number of other countries.
The politicians and pundits are all abuzz with the massive turnouts in the primaries and caucuses. There are increasing percentages of women participating, and initial reports point to more young people. The youth vote is particularly important, as young people have less invested in the status quo and can look with fresh eyes at long-standing injustices that disenfranchise so many. In this context, one of The Sentencing Project's predictions bears repeating here: "Given current rates of incarceration, 3 in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40 percent of black men may permanently lose their right to vote."
The Sentencing Project's King said: "We are constantly pushing for legislative change around the country. But public education is absolutely key. There are so many different laws that people simply don't know when their right to vote has been restored. That includes the personnel who work in state governments giving out the wrong information."
I called my friend to tell him he was misinformed. He hadn't been on probation or parole for years. "You can vote," I told him. "You just have to register." I could hear him smile through the phone.