The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. More than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. -- or roughly one in 100 adults -- according to a report released earlier this year by the Pew Center on the States. Even China, the most populous nation in the world, incarcerates fewer people than we do.
While we laud the historic nature of this election and speculate over how the various voting blocks -- women, Latinos, evangelicals -- will cast their ballots in November, we've forgotten about a group that may have the most at stake in local and national elections: our felons. Overly punitive legislation and a devastating war on drugs have resulted in the disenfranchisement of 5.3 million people who are unable to vote in this country because of a felony conviction.
The most egregious and notorious case may be in Florida during the 2000 election. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Marc Mauer, executive director of the non-profit Sentencing Project, stated that, "On the day of the 2000 [presidential] election, there were an estimated 600,000 former felons who had completed their sentence yet because of Florida's restrictive laws were unable to vote." It's widely believed that the 2000 election would have gone to Al Gore had Florida allowed former felons to cast ballots.
According to sociologists Chris Uggen and Jeff Manza, 2000 was not the only election year where the felon vote could have affected the outcome. In an article in the American Sociological Review, Uggen and Manza found that the felon vote could have changed the outcome of seven senatorial races between 1978 and 2000. In the 2004 election, 957,000 ex-felons were unable to vote.
Felon voting laws vary drastically from state to state. Some, like Indiana and Oregon, restore voting rights after the completion of a sentence, allowing parolees and probationers to vote. Others, including Minnesota and New Mexico, automatically restore voting rights after an ex-felon completes parole and probation. Kentucky and Virginia have the most restrictive felon voting laws in the nation by permanently disenfranchising ex-felons for life. Maine and Vermont don't disenfranchise felons at all; an incarcerated person in those states can cast his or her vote by absentee ballot directly from the prison cell. With such disparate felon voting laws, one must ask what purpose does disfranchising felons serve?
The answer may lie in our nation's history. Disenfranchisement proliferated after reconstruction as a way to keep former slaves from voting. The Fifteenth Amendment banned race-based disfranchisement of African-American men, but southern states began using criminal disfranchisement laws to suppress the black vote. Nowadays, lawmakers may say that ex-felons are disfranchised because they need to prove that they deserve re-entry into society or that these laws help prevent voter fraud, but the result of ex-felon disfranchisement is an overwhelming under representation of African-Americans in the political process. Nearly one in seven black men are disfranchised. That rate is seven times the national average.
Over the last decade some states have made strides towards re-enfranchising felons. President Bush recognized the importance of felon voting as a way to help reintegrate ex-felons into society. In 1997, as the governor of Texas, Bush signed a bill that eliminated a two-year period that people with felony convictions had to wait before they could register to vote again. Yet other states continue to disfranchise felons and use complicated and arduous processes for felons to regain their civil rights. Some states, like Arizona, require felons to pay fees and fines before they're allowed to apply for civil rights restoration. Many equate this requirement to a poll tax.
America is a country that prides itself on being a democracy yet we allow millions of our citizens -- those who could benefit the most from being active in our political process -- to be disenfranchised. Why do we continue to punish felons after they complete their sentences? People who have paid their debt to society with prison time should have the opportunity to help create and change laws that directly affect their lives and families. Why shouldn't people who live, work and pay taxes in our communities have the opportunity to participate in our democracy? And how can we expect formerly incarcerated people to reintegrate into society when they aren't allowed the most fundamental right of all Americans?