Locking Up the Vote
by Salim Muwakkil
In These Times magazine, October 2000
Last month a trio of civil liberties groups and eight former
inmates filed suit against the state of Florida for a law that
strips ex-felons of the right to vote. The suit charges the Florida
law has a disproportionate affect on the black electorate, and
is thus unconstitutional. The ultimate aim of the action is to
challenge all state laws that disenfranchise ex-felons.
According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing
Project, 2 percent of all Americans, or 3.9 million, have lost
the right to vote because of felony convictions. Of that number,
1.4 million (36 percent) are African-American men, which represents
13 percent of all voting age black men and reflects a rate of
disenfranchisement that is seven times the national average.
In the states of Florida and Alabama, one in three black men
is permanently disenfranchised, and in seven other states that
ratio is near 25 percent. If current trends continue, the study
notes, 30 percent of the next generation of black men can expect
to lose their right to vote at some point in their lifetimes.
Laws disenfranchising felons have been around since the early
days of the nation, but after the Civil War they took on an added
significance and (especially in the southern states) specifically
targeted formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants. Currently,
47 states and the District of Columbia have laws that deprive
inmates of the right to vote (the three states that permit inmate
voting are Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont). Thirty-two states
further deny the vote to persons on probation or parole; in 15
states a felon can be barred from voting for life. The skyrocketing
growth of the racially disparate inmate population has exacerbated
discriminatory effects of these electoral prohibitions.
The Florida suit was filed on behalf of the eight former inmates
by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School
of Law, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington
and James Green, a Florida civil rights attorney. According to
Nancy Northup, director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program,
Florida was targeted because it has the largest number of disenfranchised
ex-felons in the country, and because the law there was enacted
specifically to deny blacks the right to vote in the aftermath
of the Civil War.
The precedent for this challenge is a 1985 ruling, Hunter
v. Underwood, that struck down an Alabama criminal disenfranchisement
law under the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. The court
held that any criminal disenfranchisement law that had a racially
discriminatory intent and effect would violate that clause.
No other democracy bars convicted offenders from voting for
life. In fact, many countries-including France, Germany, Sweden,
Norway and Poland-permit those in prison to vote. Most democracies
have concluded that such laws defeat the purposes of incarceration:
rehabilitation and public safety. Since most prisoners will return
to the community, society has an interest in cultivating their
sense of social obligation and encouraging civic engagement; electoral
participation is the bedrock of civic engagement.
Disenfranchisement laws are so destructive to democratic values
they can hardly be justified except as part of an exclusivist
tradition. The Florida suit seeks to break that tradition through
the courts. Others are trying in other venues. Rep. John Conyers
(D-Michigan) last year introduced the Civic Participation and
Rehabilitation Act, which would restore the right to vote in federal
elections to individuals who have been released from prison. Conyers'
measure has received little support, but it is a bill whose time
Rights, Justice and Reform