News  U.S. presidential election excludes felons

As a result of outdated state laws, incarcerated and released felons don’t vote

Nearly 5.3-million Americans will be denied the right to vote in tomorrow’s election because of felony convictions on their criminal records.

Laws in all but two states – Maine and Vermont – prevent inmates from voting, and only 15 states allow felons on parole to participate in the democratic process.

Ryan King, a policy analyst at The Sentencing Project, an organization promoting justice reform, said that many Americans believe criminals should lose the right to vote.

“For a lot of people, this is a way to further punish individuals, by essentially saying you aren’t a real citizen,” said King. “If you broke the law, you don’t deserve to make the law.”

According to the organization, roughly 13 per cent of African-American men – 1.4-million – do not have the right to vote. Felony laws also exclude 2-million white Americans – including Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites – from voting.

King noted that many of these laws stem from the disenfranchisement of slaves after abolition.

“There was clearly an effort in southern states to try to quiet the voice of newly emancipated slaves,” King said.

Rachel Bloom, an advocacy coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), agreed that black people were more likely to be disenfranchised in the voting process.

“In Mississippi, [they listed ten specific crimes, which] black men were more likely to be convicted of than white men,” said Bloom. “That’s still the law today.

“They’re essentially the only Jim Crow laws that are still in effect today,” she added.

Aaron Lindh, a law graduate student and member of McGill Students for Obama, noted that Americans idealize a tough stance on crime. American prisoners and felons do not receive much political protection and their rights are not frequently advocated for, he added.

As of 2002, prisoners gained the right to vote in Canada, as is the case in many other democratic nations. The only Canadian citizens in the country who cannot vote in federal elections are the Chief Electoral Officer and his or her assistant.

There is uncertainty about how the absence of the felon vote will affect the presidential election.

“Historically, it’s the part of the population that votes Democratic…. Is this going to affect the race in some states that are particularly close?” asked Lindh. “We don’t know.”

King echoed Lindh, adding that such a large number of voters could make a difference in tight battleground states.

“You’ve got 5-million people who can’t vote,” King said. “It’s going to vary state-to-state, [but] I think that in certain states with razor thin margins it will affect the outcome.”

In general, however, it is unlikely that polls are conducted among this group of disenfranchised voters, whether in or out of prison. Current polls, therefore, do not misconstrue the numbers by including felon voters.

“If the polls are to be believed, it’s not going to be affecting the presidential race…but it’s not the only election going on. There are local elections, too,” said Lindh.

Because many decisions in the U.S. are made at the state and local level, people are arguably much more affected by those races than the presidential one.

Inequality is especially apparent in communities where districts are more populated by a certain minority demographic; having a large chunk of that group missing can have devastating effects on results, explained Lindh.

Even in states where released felons can register to vote, ex-convicts often consider the process difficult and do not complete it.

“[When] you’re out registering voters in the community, time after time you hear people saying they can’t vote because they were locked up,” said Bloom. The ACLU found in a telephone survey that many election officials were unaware of their state’s law on voting by felons.

“In Colorado…50 per cent of elections officials did not know individuals on probation had the right to vote,” said Bloom. “People are legally allowed to vote, but are being told by election officials that they can’t. It ends up being so confusing.”

The Democracy Restoration Act (2008) was proposed to congress on September 26. If passed, it will restore the voting rights of the estimated 4-million Americans who have already been released from prison, and are still disenfranchised.