Understanding Felon Disenfranchisement

During a historic vote in the 2018 midterms, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, effectively restoring suffrage to 1.4 million previously incarcerated residents. While the statute does not include those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses, it represents one of the largest moves for voting rights in decades. Yet, as has happened before, following this win for the formerly incarcerated, the Florida legislature recently approved a bill that added a caveat to Amendment 4: before regaining their right to vote, a person must repay all financial obligations from their sentencing. The only ways out of this new rule are to either get a judge to clear your fees, or have a judge transfer your fees into community service. In the latter situation, Floridians can only vote after completing all of their hours. This move angers voting rights and racial justice activists, as African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of their fellow white citizens. In Florida alone, 21% of black voters suffer disenfranchised. Although legislators have been discussing criminal disenfranchisement for over a century, presidential candidates, activists, and citizens have brought this issue to the front page recently. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who leads one of the two states who allow their prisoners the right to vote and hopes to take this law into his presidency, has held a firm position on the issue. His discussion on the topic led some democratic presidential candidates to chime in their views, while others remained silent. Besides leaning into the ACLU’s number one “Rights for All” campaign and taking it on as a moral issue, democratic candidates may be apt to strategically explore the impact this suffrage would have on their voting numbers. For context, In the 2016 presidential election, Florida, an infamous swing state with 29 electoral votes, went red. Hillary Clinton received 4,485,745 votes to Donald Trump’s 4,605,515. According to Christopher Uggen, Ryan Larson, and Sarah Shannon’s piece “6 Million Lost Voters,” 1,686,318 Americans in Florida cannot vote due to disenfranchisement, 499,306 of those being African American. According to the Pew Research Center, 84% of black voters identify with the Democratic Party or lean democratic. Meaning, if every disenfranchised African American was able to vote in the 2016 election, assuming this statistic, Hillary clinton would have gained 419,417 more votes. This would bring her total number of votes to 4,905,162. That number, being significantly higher than Trump’s, could have won her the 29 electoral votes. Now, this one state would not have secured the election, but, perhaps if analysts applied this formula to all 50 states, the U.S. would have a different president. Whereas these numbers do not account for the white vote of former felons, it stirs thought about the impact this discussion could have on later elections – a consequence that truly does affect this society, as well as the world, daily.

When one looks at disenfranchisement statistics in terms of race, something becomes glaringly clear: the system works exactly as designed. The Florida conservative cycle goes as follows, although most of these steps apply on a federal level:

The manner in which the Florida Republican Party cyclically disenfranchises black voters, mirrors larger systems of inequality within this nation. Certain legislators and their voters continue institutional racism through both explicit and inexplicit ways. The former looks like egging police officers to “not be too nice to suspects,” as President Donald Trump did in 2017. The latter could take the form of praising oneself for the accomplishments of the black community, as Trump boasted in one of his offputting tweets. Both of these forms make real waves in the world that negatively impact the enfranchisement of black voters on systemic and individual levels.

Long before the 15th Amendment attempted to enfranchise black men across the nation, The U.S. Constitution outright noted who they wanted to be included in decisions and voting. The Naturalization Act of 1790 declared that any free white person of good character who lived in the U.S. could become a citizen and, therefore, vote. The 15th Amendment was introduced 80 years later. For 80 years, those in power scoffed at the thought of black people living on American soil voting. Yet, unsurprisingly, black voters continue to face aggressive disenfranchisement attempts to this day. In the time since the 15th Amendment, legislators have enforced poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests to keep black voters outside of the polls. Poll taxes, according to the National Museum of American History, “were essentially a voting fee. Eligible voters were required to pay their poll tax before they could cast a ballot.” Further, at the end of the 19th century, seven Southern states enacted the grandfather clause, which ensured that “those who had enjoyed the right to vote prior to 1866 or 1867, or their lineal descendants, would be exempt from educational, property, or tax requirements for voting,” as explained by Encyclopaedia Britannica. Continuing this legacy well into the next century, officials disproportionately administered literacy tests to black voters in the mid 1900s, featuring instructions like “Spell backwards, forwards” and “Draw a vertical line in two equal parts by bisecting it with a curved horizontal line that is only straight at its spot bisection of the vertical.” If onlookers had any doubt that these laws, and those more specifically geared towards felon disenfranchisement, intentionally attacked black voters, Angela Behrens, Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza’s report on the history of disenfranchisement dispels all ambiguity. As reiterated by Brent Staples in the New York Times, “the larger the state’s black population, the more likely the state was to pass the most stringent laws that permanently denied people convicted of crimes the right to vote.” The primarily white men imposing these new iterations of old pursuits to disenfranchise black voters are following history’s playbook with ease.

In a visually animated interview with Author Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, he noted, “The enduring view of African Americans in this country is as a race of people who are prone to criminality.” The Baltimore born national correspondent continued to explain how politicians made sure that society saw black people doing normal things, such as learning to read or freeing their body, as criminal under U.S. law. Often, racist political actors will call upon “black on black crime” rhetoric to satisfy their base, despite studies that prove the claim wrong. These same individuals conveniently ignore statistics which find “the rate of white-on-white violent crime is about four times the rate of black-on-white crime.” The Wall Street Journal’s published quote which asserts “Blacks are disproportionately affected by felon disenfranchisement laws because a disproportionate number of blacks are felons. The problem is black criminality, not racist laws,” lacks both factual evidence and vital nuance. Controlling images of black people, particularly black men, perpetuate these tropes. More specifically, the “Buck” or “Brute” stereotype paints black men as inherently criminal, animalistic, and dangerous. Starting from slavery and continuing on to moral panics seen today, this stereotype reaches across temporal boundaries. Politicians, pundits, and media personalities all play a part in holding up this negative association, yet in different ways. Journalists can change perceptions of black men in several practical, quite easy, steps. Vox recently did a deep dive into the impact media has on race and crime. Their headline, “These 2 sets of pictures are everything you need to know about race, crime, and media bias,” perfectly encapsulates a phenomenon at the center of this conversation. Too often, journalists choose to use professionally photographed, suit-complete pictures of white men for their stories, while simultaneously making collages of black men’s mugshots. On this same page, Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit organization, conducted a study exploring how local news organizations cover crime depending on the race of the offender. When discussing New York City, the researchers explained, “television stations gave disproportionate coverage of crimes committed by African-Americans when compared to actual NYPD crime statistics.” This disparity, they continued, “perpetuates racial stereotypes and can shape everything from personal bias to criminal justice outcomes.”  The latter influence manifests in everything from police brutality to systemic voter disenfranchisement.

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