WASHINGTON: Mass incarceration has fueled Black voter disenfranchisement for decades in the U.S.
More than 5 million Americans are unable to vote because of a felony record, and they are disproportionately Black. The fight to undo felon disenfranchisement laws are gaining ground, and could radically shift the political landscape. But progress is also fueling opposition.
Black, voting-age Americans are nearly four times as likely as other American adults to lose their voting rights because of a past felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project.
More than one-in-seven Black adults in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming is unable to vote.
“Because of the over-policing in African American communities, you’re going to get a higher percentage of African Americans who are convicted of felony offenses and thus are disenfranchised.”
— Desmond Meade, president of the activist group Florida Rights Restoration Coalition who was formerly incarcerated himself
Between the lines: Criminal disenfranchisement laws vary by state. Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., allow felons to vote even while incarcerated.
After 2016, Florida, Kentucky and Iowa were the only states to still permanently disenfranchise anyone with a felony record. All three have restored voting rights for many.
Ten other states and D.C. have expanded voting rights for formerly or currently incarcerated people since the last general election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
There’s been pushback, particularly in the critical swing state of Florida where 8% of the voting-age population is still disenfranchised despite reforms.
Florida voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018, returning voting rights to more than 1 million Floridians with felony records.
But Republican lawmakers responded by passing a bill requiring all court-related fees, fines and restitution to first be paid — despite the state not having any central database with that information.
A federal appeals court decision in September kept the fines and fees requirement intact, leaving a large percentage of former felons again ineligible to vote in Florida. One study found just 45,300 felons had registered to vote after Amendment 4, and 78% might owe fees, per ProPublica.
The complications and confusion will likely scare people with felonies away from voting — even if they’re eligible. “Certainly, Florida has done everything they can to make that the case,” Julie Ebenstein, ACLU’s Voting Rights Project lead attorney for felon disenfranchisement issues told Axios.
Restoring voting rights will do more than shift political power from one party to another. “We have an ability now to significantly increase the voices of people who’ve been directly impacted by the criminal justice system in such a way that will shake up both sides of the aisle,” Meade said. (Axios)