Barred for life

Ex-Cons Deserve the Right to Vote

by Ron Nixon

The Progressive magazine, May 2000


Twelve years ago, Derrick Gayle, now thirty, fell in with the wrong crowd. He did drugs and dabbled in hot merchandise. He never expected to get caught. But he did. Charged with possession of marijuana and receiving stolen property, he spent nine years in Alabama's Bullock County Correctional Facility.

Gayle was released three years ago. He works a regular job and stays drug free and out of trouble, he says. He has tried to put his past behind him. But the state of Alabama won't let him. He is still denied one of the most basic rights of a free man: He can't vote.

"What more do I have to do to prove that I've repaid my debt to society? I've done my time," says Gayle, who works putting up wallpaper and building bookshelves. "All I want is the right to vote like everyone else."

The state of Alabama permanently bars people convicted of felonies from exercising the right to vote. In a state where some of the hardest battles over voting rights were fought, more than 100,000 black men like Gayle-31 percent of the black male population-are denied the franchise.

This disenfranchisement is not restricted to Alabama, though.

Nine other states disenfranchise felons for life: Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming. Arizona and Maryland permanently disenfranchise those convicted of a second felony; and Tennessee and Washington permanently disenfranchise those convicted prior to 1986 and 1984, respectively. Most other states have intermediate suspensions of voting rights for felons, while four-Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and Utah-do allow felons to vote.

The number of black men excluded from voting is startling. In Florida, as in Alabama, 31 percent of all black men are permanently disenfranchised. In Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming, one in four black men is currently or permanently disenfranchised. In Delaware and Texas, it's one in five. In Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin, 16 to 18 percent are currently disenfranchised.

A report last year, "Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States," put out by the Sentencing Project, a public interest group in Washington, D.C., found that African Americans made up nearly half of those denied the right to vote. An estimated 1.4 million black men-or 13 percent of the entire black male population-were disenfranchised.

Behind the large number of blacks denied the right to vote is the so-called war on drugs. In 1997, more than 271,000 people in state or federal prisons were incarcerated for drug offenses, 100,000 of those for mere possession. Blacks are convicted of drug offenses at about five times the rate of whites, even though both groups use drugs at a comparable level.

Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project and co-author of the voting report, likens the practice of disenfranchising felons to Jim Crow literacy tests and poll taxes. "I don't think it's designed to disenfranchise African Americans, but that's been the impact," he says.

In some states where felons are denied the right to vote, activists and sympathetic legislators are asking that the laws be changed so millions of people can again have a voice in the democratic process.

"At a time when there are attacks on affirmative action and other rights that blacks have fought so hard for, a good percentage of our population can't even vote and help stem the tide against this kind of thing," says Gwen Patton, a voting rights activist and professor at H. Council Trenholm State Technical College in Montgomery, Alabama.

"This is a major issue for us," says Earl Shinhoster, director of voter empowerment for the NAACP, which is waging a massive voter education campaign centered on the issue of suffrage for former felons. "You have to make the public aware of these things-that's the key. Given the feeling among most whites and even blacks, they could give a damn. We have to show them why this is important."

Selma, Alabama, Derrick Gayle's hometown, is a shrine of the civil rights movement. It was here that dozens of civil rights activists, including current Congressman John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, were beaten by police as they tried to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. The city is more than 60 percent black, yet whites still hold power. For instance, the town's white mayor, Joe Smitterman, has been in office since the 1960s.

Activists in Alabama suspect the disenfranchisement of ex-offenders may have contributed to the loss of the state's first black district attorney, Barren Lankerster, who was defeated in his reelection bid by fewer than 100 votes.

"We talked to several people who said they would have loved to vote but couldn't because they had been convicted of a felony," says John Zipper, publisher of the weekly Green County Democrat in Eutaw, Alabama. "This certainly had an impact."

Alabama used to disenfranchise even more people. Until a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision disallowed the practice, the state would take the vote away from people who had been convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude-most were misdemeanors and required no jail time. Blacks were nearly ten times as likely as whites to be barred for such crimes. The Court found that the law was specifically designed to discriminate against blacks. It originated at a 1901 state constitutional convention, where Southern Democrats, still smarting from the Civil War, tried to formulate a law that would disenfranchise blacks but "stay within the limits of the Constitution . . . to establish white supremacy in this state," as John B. Knox, president of the convention, said in his opening speech.

"Change the names, but the focus remains the same," says the Reverend David Spencer, a minister who lives just outside of Tuskegee, Alabama. Spencer works with prisoners and believes they should have the right to vote when they are freed.

But many legislators don't see it that way. "It's my position that convicted felons ought to have demonstrated some kind of civic responsibility before you arbitrarily give it back," says Alabama state legislator Mark Gaines, a Republican.

Jacqueline Lewis, a former Republican Massachusetts state legislator, agrees. She sponsored legislation that would have overturned the Massachusetts law that allows felons to vote. In Massachusetts, the more than 20,000 prisoners in jails and prison are eligible to vote by absentee ballot.

"You have someone who rapes and mutilates a child, goes to prison for a short while, and is still allowed to vote. That sickens me," she says.

"The child molester argument is used to scare people," says Shinhoster of the NAACP. "Everyone who has committed a felony is not a child molester, and a lot of these folks have done their time and simply want to vote on matters that affect their lives."

Yvonne Kennedy would like Derrick Gayle's vote. A six-term Democratic state representative in Alabama, Kennedy has introduced legislation to give former felons their right to vote back. The bill has twice been defeated, but Kennedy said she is undeterred.

"More and more, I feel optimistic about it," she says.

Kennedy is one of a growing number of legislators who have filed bills that would make it legal for felons to vote once they have served their time. In Georgia, State Representative Bob Holmes, a Democrat, has repeatedly sponsored bills to restore the voting rights of felons and plans to do so again this year. In Florida, black legislators have introduced bills that would restore the right to vote to former felons. The Pennsylvania state legislature is holding hearings on the issue, as well.

There is also action at the federal level.

On October 21, 1999, the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the "Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act of 1999." The bill, introduced by Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, and thirty co-sponsors, would allow non-incarcerated felons and ex-felons to vote in federal elections, even if state law precludes them from voting in state elections.

"If we want former felons to become good citizens, we must give them the rights as well as responsibilities, and there is no greater responsibility than voting," Conyers has said.

Black legislators realize they face a tough battle in trying to get felons the right to vote. "We know it's not going to be the most popular thing," says Yvonne Kennedy. "But it's the right thing to do. I don't believe someone should be barred from a basic right once they have paid their debt to society. No one should be punished for life."


Ron Nixon is an investigative reporter in Virginia

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