Huffpost Black Voices

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Ben Jealous Headshot

The Voter Suppression We Ignore at Democracy's Peril

Posted: Updated:

It's time America confronted the dark reality of states that continue to ban formerly incarcerated people from exercising their right to vote. After all, this Tuesday it may determine the presidency.

Tomorrow millions of Americans will engage in one of our most treasured traditions -- voting for the leadership of our nation.

However, this constitutionally-protected right, the very cornerstone of our democracy, has come under attack though a concerted effort to suppress the vote and silence the voices of millions. While we have had great successes this year battling many efforts to block the vote, we know hundreds of thousands of voters in two battleground states will be newly blocked from voting.

This year the media discussion has put the spotlight on photo ID legislation and cutbacks to early voting, yet new laws that block the formerly incarcerated from the franchise have largely escaped notice. And the sheer number of people affected is so large it could determine who will be our next president.

To date, nearly six million formerly-incarcerated Americans are disenfranchised -- they have served their debt to society, yet are denied this basic Constitutional right.

This is a massive injustice, to be sure, but the real story is that these felony disenfranchisement laws that target former offenders are being enforced in 2012 in key states where they were not in 2008.

Last year, the Governors of Iowa and Florida suddenly reinstated felony disenfranchisement laws that had previously been suspended. This eliminated the voting power for what are likely hundreds of thousands of citizens who would have been voting eligible in 2011 and 2012.

In a closely-contested presidential election, either Iowa or Florida could decide the outcome of the presidential election. A third, Virginia, is one of only four states (along with Iowa, Florida, and Kentucky) in the country where a lifetime ban is imposed on anyone who was once convicted of a felony, the same Jim Crow voting laws of more than a century ago. Their rights can only be restored by the mercy of the Governor. Since 2011, only 12 of the estimated 8,000 released have had their rights restored in Iowa.

Back when Virginia instituted its ban in 1901, delegates to the state constitutional convention where it was adopted as part of a larger voter suppression strategy stated their motives plainly. This plan will "eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years," explained one delegate.

This year, the Governors of Iowa and Florida have been more guarded about stating their motives for reinstating these bans. Many have concluded that these Governors' reasons are partisan because their party lost their state in the last presidential election and the voters who will be impacted are believed to be disproportionately likely to support the president's bid for reelection.

If the Governors of Florida and Iowa reinstated these bans with an eye towards influencing the outcome of tomorrow's election, it is truly shameful.

Instead, they should have followed the path cut by former Florida Governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist who both embraced the cause of re-enfranchising formerly incarcerated people simply because it is the right thing to do for our democracy.

Each of these three battleground states have turned on a razor thin margin in recent election cycles -- far smaller than the number of voters erased from the registration rolls this year.

In short, this election may be determined by the denial of a basic right to men and women who have long since paid their debt to society, but remain excluded from the democratic process.

These Americans include taxpayers, employers, employees, parents, caregivers, students, and a growing number of would-be first-time voters -- all people who have paid their debt to society and deserve to have their voices heard on Election Day.

In America, we believe voting is a right. In America, we believe in second chances. In America, we believe candidates -- and parties -- should win on the sheer force of their ideas, not the brute force of voter suppression.

This continued, and now expanding, practice of barring people who have served their time from exercising their right to vote is un-American.

That it may decide the outcome of tomorrow's presidential election in unconscionable.