How Do You Disenfranchise 1 In 8 Black Men?

05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

State laws that ban convicted felons from voting are having the unintentional (or is it intentional?) effect of disenfranchising one in eight African-American men.

Over the last two centuries, other voting prohibitions have fallen one by one as what was originally a privilege enjoyed only by white men of property was grudgingly recognized as a basic American right.

But in many states, convicted felons can't vote even after they've re-entered society. And because of the disproportionate number of black men convicted of felonies, the effect on that population has been tremendously magnified.

An estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote based on their felony convictions, 4 million of whom are out of prison. About a third of them are black, including 13 percent of all African-American men.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are proposing to change that. H.R. 3335, the Democracy Restoration Act, would bar states from disenfranchising felons from federal elections after they've been released from prison. Right now, state laws are literally all over the map.

At a subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, called the matter "a question of rehabilitation, democracy and fairness." He argued, in his prepared remarks:

Felony voting restrictions are the last vestige of voting prohibitions; when the U.S. was founded only wealthy white men were allowed to vote. Women, minorities, illiterates and the poor were excluded. Most of these restrictions have all been eliminated over time, often with much debate, rancor and challenges. People who have served their time and been released from prison are the last Americans to be denied their highly cherished, basic right to vote.

He said the state laws "have significantly affected the political voice of the African American community." For instance:

In Virginia, almost 7% of the entire voting-age population is disenfranchised due to a past felony conviction; and almost 20% of the state's African American population is locked out of the voting booth.

NYU Law School Professor Burt Neuborne argued that "most felony disenfranchisement statutes have their genesis in an effort to disenfranchise racial minorities" and that the "felony disenfranchisement laws of one kind or another" that "remain on the books of 48 of the 50 states" are "a morally repugnant link with a racist past."

Andres Idarraga, a Yale Law School student, told his story:

I became involved in drug dealing, and, at 20, I was sent to prison as a result. I would spend the next six years and four months incarcerated. While incarcerated, I realized what I had thrown away and became determined to turn things around for myself, for my family, and for my community. After I was released, I attended the University of Rhode Island, graduated from Brown University, and am now attending Yale Law School....

In November 2006, my fellow Rhode Islanders were the first in the nation to go to the
polls and approve a ballot referendum to restore voting rights to people as soon as they are released from prison. Now, when a person leaves prison, the Department of Corrections hands him or her a voter registration form. This change in the law allowed me and 15,000 other citizens with felony convictions to vote. We are now finally fully vested members of our communities, and our civic engagement will leave lasting imprints.

Two witnesses spoke in defense of the current system, including Hans von Spakovsky, whose claim to fame is his stint in the Bush Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, where he turned the voting rights section's mission on its head -- working to make it harder, not easier, for poor and minority voters to cast ballots. He argued in his prepared remarks:

The loss of civil rights is part of the sanction that our society has determined should be applied to criminals. Many black communities unfortunately suffer from high rates of crime, yet this bill would have a pernicious effect on the ability of law-abiding citizens to reduce crime in their own communities.

Von Spakovsky said it was a matter of states' rights. And he both mocked and questioned the motivations of the bill's sponsors:

Why does this bill not also amend federal law to allow them to once again own a handgun? Are we to believe that they can be trusted to vote but not to own a handgun? Are we to believe that the sponsors of this legislation think that a convicted child molester can be trusted to vote but cannot be trusted to be a teacher in a public school? Are we to believe a convicted drug dealer can be trusted to vote but cannot be trusted to be a police officer? Or is the true motivation here based more on the fact that their vote is important to winning close elections?