Columbia Law Professor Vivian Berger, quoted at TalkLeft, writes:
These laws have a disproportionate impact on minorities — 1.4 million black men cannot vote. That is a rate of 13 percent — seven times the national average. A majority of the disenfranchised live in the South: Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia all bar former prisoners from voting. Some of these states adopted disenfranchisement provisions during Reconstruction in order to evade the 15th Amendment’s ban on withholding suffrage from freedmen. (Disenfranchising crimes were carefully selected to disqualify large numbers of blacks.) In Florida and Alabama, the racial effect is greatest; blacks comprise almost 50 percent of the disenfranchised.
Given the disparate targeting and treatment of blacks by the criminal justice system, felony disenfranchisement adds a second level of insult and injury to minority ex-offenders. It harms individuals and also limits group political power.
Although these laws originated with racist Democrats over a century ago, they are maintained and sometimes expanded by the current GOP. For instance, “As one of his first actions after taking office in 2011, [Florida Governor] Scott, as chairman of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, undid automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent ex-offenders that previous Gov. Charlie Crist helped adopt in 2007. Since then, the number of former felons who have had their voting rights restored has slowed to a trickle, even compared with the year before Crist and the clemency board helped make the process easier.”
No one should be disenfranchised after having served their time.
In fact, US citizens should have the right to vote while in prison. Having a huge population of citizens who are especially subject to the government’s dictates, but have no right to vote, invites abuses and is no way to run a democracy.They are people, and citizens; they should have the right to vote.
Furthermore, white racists have rushed to do the same thing with felons that their predecessors did with slaves – use them for head-counting purposes to increase the voting power of white people.
The federal government, in the form of the Census Bureau, is permitting states and counties all over the country to undermine the “one person, one vote” concept. The Census Bureau is doing this by counting prison inmates as residents of the prisons where they are serving their sentences instead of counting them as residents of the places they lived before they were incarcerated. Then, to make matters worse, when the inmates go back to their residences, their prison “districts” continue to reap the benefits of the Census count. In a nation where millions are incarcerated, this is no small accounting glitch.
The result is that rural counties (where prisons typically are located) gain the benefit of higher Census populations (and thus more legislative representation). The problem would be one of semantics, of course, if prisoners were allowed to vote. But in the vast majority of cases, felon disenfranchisement laws ensure that they do not.
Fred Grimm, in the Miami Herald, describes how this works in Florida:
North Florida pols have packed their state House districts with a particularly low-maintenance category of citizens. The kind who don’t show up at townhall meetings clamoring about too much traffic or lousy parks or crumbling bridges or under-funded schools or the need for more cops on the beat. They never, ever complain about too few cops.
Best of all they don’t go around town grumbling that folks should vote for that other candidate. They can’t. They can’t vote. They’re state prisoners.
They’re the great gift urban counties ship up to state representatives in Florida’s rural prison belt, whose districts encompass Sumpter or Bradford or Baker or Hardee or Calhoun and other counties where incarceration is a major local industry and inmates represent a sizeable chunk of the local population.
Come time to redistrict, every 10 years, those inmates — most of them big city homies — are counted along with the local population, making prisoners a valuable political commodity and consigning elected officials, particularly state reps, political power out of whack with their actual voting constituency.
As you can see from the map at top, some localities have banned prison gerrymandering – but most haven’t. The Census Bureau is talking about changing how the Census counts prisoners, and that’s good; however, I worry that any reform done by the Obama administration is subject to being undone by future Republican administrations.