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The Shame of Not Letting Felons Vote

5.85 million Americans can't vote because of their criminal history, putting the U.S. at odds with countries throughout the developed world.

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REUTERS

Later this month the United Nations Human Rights Committee will conduct a review to determine whether the U.S. is complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which we ratified (with conditions) in 1992. If past is prologue, we can expect the U.N. Human Rights Committee to chide the U.S. for failing to live up to the covenant. In particular, the committee will probably hammer us for voting restrictions placed on convicted felons. 

In advance of the review, a coalition of civil rights advocacy groups, including the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Sentencing Project, have released a report highlighting the fact that the U.S. is home to one of the largest conviction-related disenfranchised populations in the world. In 1980, 1.17 million adults in the U.S. faced some type of voting restriction due to a criminal conviction. By 2010, that number had increased 500 percent to 5.85 million people. As the Sentencing Project notes, that increase directly mirrors the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. And just as mass incarceration has had a disproportionate impact on people of color, so too do felon disenfranchisement laws: 

At present, 7.7% of the adult African-American population, or one out of every thirteen, is disenfranchised. This rate is four times greater than the non African-American population rate of 1.8%. In three states, at least one out of every five African-American adults is disenfranchised: Florida (23%), Kentucky (22%), and Virginia (20%). Nationwide, 2.2 million African-Americans are disenfranchised on the basis of involvement with the criminal justice system, more than 40% of whom have completed the terms of their sentences.

Turns out, depriving people who have committed crimes the right to vote is as American as apple pie:

[T]wenty-nine states had such laws on the books at the time of the ratification of the Constitution. These laws were borne out of the concept of a punitive criminal justice system—those convicted of a crime had violated social norms, and, therefore, had proven themselves unfit to participate in the political process. Beginning around the end of Reconstruction—about 1870—many southern states significantly broadened felony disenfranchisement and began focusing on crimes believed to be disproportionately committed by African Americans. It was used along with a bevy of other measures as a means to circumvent the requirements of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from preventing individuals from voting on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The justifications for disenfranchising individuals with felony convictions were ostensibly based on fears over the “purity of the ballot box” and concern that allowing certain current or even former inmates to vote would “pervert” the political process. These laws were often upheld by reference to an exemption for felony disenfranchisement in Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment—“participation in rebellion, or other crime.” Rather than punitive—focusing on the individual—these laws were deemed by the Supreme Court to be regulatory—focusing on the ballot and election itself.

As the report notes, the push to overhaul America's criminal justice system—prison diversion policies, growing support for mandatory minimum and drug sentencing reform—has yet to include felon disenfranchisement, which, in the worst states, continues to punish people long after they've completed their sentences. In Florida, for instance, roughly 1.5 million residents as of 2010 could not vote because of their felony convictions; the Sentencing Project says that amounts to "10.42 percent of the state’s voting age population and 23.3 percent of Florida’s African-American voting age population." As the map we built shows, state felon disenfranchisement laws range from restricting prisoners from voting, to restricting anyone who's ever been convicted (only Maine and Vermont have no restrictions on felons voting, which means even prisoners in those two states can vote): 

(Click to view larger version)

America's various felon disenfranchisement laws are at odds with countries throughout the developed world. The high courts of South Africa, Canada, and Europe have all declared that universal adult suffrage is one of the core tenets of democratic governance. 

Top image: Voters enter the voting booth in the "Ballot Room" of the Balsams Hotel in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire January 9, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

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