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Two Million Black Americans Are Still Not Free at Last
by Matthew Cardinale
January 17, 2005

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“Voting is the American way,” says Miles, an ex-felon staying at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. “Once it’s taken, you become a third-class citizen, and you can’t participate in what this country’s all about and what wars were fought for.”

“Losing the right to vote affects my views of those in power,” said Steve, with an unmistakable inflection of regret in his voice. “I believe in democracy, but not the way they’re trying to use it.”

The mysterious “they” was a recurring theme among the ex-felons I talked to, showing how so many ex-felons who lose the right to vote in turn feel that American politics is something conducted by other people, for other people.

BJ concurs, “It makes me mad, upset. If you can’t vote, you can’t get no change in office. It’s frustrating. I might as well just stay in jail. I know it’s wrong. I pray every day things change.”

5 million Americans like Miles, Steve, and BJ [aliases used] have been disenfranchised from voting because of laws in their state which exclude certain types of ex-convicts from voting.

The disproportionate racial impact of these laws is staggering. 1.8 million disenfranchised individuals are Black, according to the Sentencing Project, based on a figure from 2002. It is safe to say there are approximately 2 million disenfranchised Black Americans as of 2005.

Approximately 13% of all adult Black men are disenfranchised in the U.S. Black males are 7 times more likely to be disenfranchised than any other demographic group. In Alabama and Florida, 31% of all Black men are permanently disenfranchised.

According to the recent series of interviews I conducted for The Sentencing Project, an even greater proportion of Americans may believe they are unable to vote due to a lack of education about voting eligibility laws, which vary state by state. In California, for instance, ex-felons regain the right to vote after completing parole; but 50% of those I spoke to (25 out of 50) were not aware of that fact.

Troublingly, less than 10% of 50 respondents answered that they had been educated by officials about their voting eligibility, or the process for regaining the right to vote, during the judicial process or while they were in prison or on parole.

Going to a homeless shelter to do the interviews was based on the unfortunate premise that many people who go to prison end up being released without sufficient resources to make do on the outside, and many end up in homeless shelters.

“Considering what Black people had to go through to get the right to vote, it makes me feel kind of guilty, like I should have the right” says Ed-Dog. “It’s unfair. A handful of people in power do what they want to do.”

In recent months, Coretta Scott King led the NAACP in urging Americans to restore voting rights to ex-felons. She argued that Martin Luther King would be appalled today at the systematic political exclusion of so many Black men.

Jim, another ex-felon I spoke to, couldn’t agree more. However, even when he regains the right to vote after completing parole, he doesn’t plan to be a political advocate about the issue like Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King would have hoped for him.

“You lost your right to vote,” he says. “I didn’t think it was right, but they don’t care what you think.”

Again, this “they.” Who or what is this alleged “they”? We may never know. But an ex-felon I met nicknamed “Big Red” put it this way: “To be a citizen, you should never lose your right to vote. Once they mess with your rights, what do you have left?”

One question people common ask advocates is whether felons and ex-felons are the “types of people” who would be the least interested in voting in the first place? Yet, this suspicion is based on anecdote less than evidence.

I found that 40%, that is, 20 out of the 50 ex-felons I spoke with, reported having voted at least once prior to losing the right to vote.

A rate of 40% is not much lower than the average American. Also, 38% of respondents reported protesting, lobbying, or campaigning prior to losing the right to vote; also worthy political contributions.

“Now I have an eleven year old daughter,” Jimmy, another ex-felon, said. “And I want to make the world a better place for her. But I missed out and now I feel like I don’t have a say on anything that goes on in this world.”

Prior statistical estimates by sociologists Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen, argued that even at a rate of 30% voter turnout among felons and ex-felons, felon voting would tip many an election, due to the heavy concentration of those who trend Democratic.

Manza and Uggen say that former presidential candidate Al Gore would have won the 2000 Election (even with everything else that went wrong in the Election), had felons and ex-felons, or even just ex-felons alone, not been excluded from the right to vote.

Manza and Uggen write, “Felon disenfranchisement laws—combined with high rates of incarceration—may have altered the outcome of as many as seven recent U.S. Congressional elections and at least one presidential election. We estimate that the Democratic Party would have gained parity in 1984 and held majority control of the U.S. Senate from 1986 to the present,” if ex-felons were not disenfranchised, they wrote in 2002.

In 2002, Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) attempted to amend the “Martin Luther King Jr. Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act” to Senate Bill 565. The Act would have re-enfranchised all ex-felons who completed their sentences nationwide. Currently, individual state governments have discretion over to whom they want to deny voting rights, but the national bill would restore voting rights for all ex-felons nationwide in federal elections only. The Amendment lost 31-63.

Notable yea votes included Barbara Boxer, Hillary Clinton, Joe Corzine, Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Carl Levin, [surprisingly] the ultra-conservative Rick Santorum, and the late Paul Wellstone. Notable nay votes included Republicans Bill Frist and John McCain, and Democrats John Edwards, Dianne Feinstein, Robert Byrd, and Mary Landrieu.

Since 1994, Rep. Conyers (D-MI) has introduced some form of the “Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act” in each session of the U.S. House, although Republicans have thus far kept it from coming to a floor vote. Conyers did succeed in attaining sub-committee hearings in recent years.

Some proponents of disenfranchisement say that criminals have shown they have irresponsible judgment. However, as Human Rights Watch put it, “Looked at closely, [such an] idea is that the franchise should be limited to people who ‘vote right.’”

Other proponents argue that disenfranchisement is intended to keep ex-felons from voting to weaken criminal justice laws. Yet, this tragically ensures that the people who’ve experienced the realities of why the nation needs criminal justice reform will never be able to voice their expertise electorally.

This also amounts to an attempt by some states to fence out a class of voters based on the presumed content of their vote.

Besides, exclaims an ex-felon nicknamed “Clear Vision,” disenfranchisement “is not democratic. It’s rule by the few and powerful. Isn’t that more like an oligarchy?”

Matthew Cardinale is a freelance writer, advocate, and graduate student at UC Irvine in sociology and democracy studies. He would like to acknowledge the Union Rescue Mission of Los Angeles, the Sentencing Project, and Professor David Snow for helping to make possible this series of personal interviews with ex-felons. Matthew can be reached at:

Other Articles by Matthew Cardinale

* Expulsion Wasn’t End for Gay Student in Texas
* Cities Becoming Meaner to Homeless, Study Shows