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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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