How Both Democrats and Republicans Are Complicit in Disenfranchising America
by Spencer Overton, Mon Jul 31, 2006 at 07:28:37 AM EDT
The following ideas are from the second chapter of the book Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression.
In 1995, Debbie Hardy was a drug addict who had served six months in jail on a felony charge. She gave birth to nine children out of wedlock and lost custody of all of them. But then she turned her life around. She kicked her drug habit, and helped her older sister to do the same. By 2004, she was raising two of her oldest children--with one bound for the Navy and the other college. She also had a good job as the manager of a Burger King restaurant.
Hardy lives in Florida, however, a state that imposes a lifetime ban on voting by former offenders who have completed their sentences. So Hardy's past continues to haunt her. "I am trying to do the right thing, but I have had this felony hanging over my head for 12 years," said Hardy.
Over 2 million people in the United States have completed their sentences but cannot vote (that's more people than the voting-age population Delaware, Wyoming, Alaska, and Vermont combined). Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia are alone with Armenia in being the only democratic governments in the world that permanently revoke voting rights from all citizens who have completed their sentences. A few other states--Alabama, Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and Wyoming-- disenfranchise many but not all people who have served their time. As a result, U.S. citizens account for only 4.6% of the world's population but make up almost half of the people on the planet who cannot vote due to a criminal offense. In states like Florida and Virginia, 25-30% of black men cannot vote due to a felony conviction.
Despite the fact that 80% of Americans favor restoring voting rights to Americans who have completed their time, the rule persists because some politicians benefit from the exclusion.
Studies suggest that about 70% of former felons would vote Democratic. Political scientists predict that several Republicans would have lost tightly-contested races had Americans who had served their sentences been allowed to vote, including U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (Kentucky, 1984) U.S. Senator Jim Bunning (Kentucky, 1998), U.S. Senator John Warner (Virginia, 1978), Commonwealth Attorney General Bob McDonnell (Virginia, 2005), and U.S. President George W. Bush (Florida, 2000, Bush would have lost by 30,000 votes).
Some Democratic politicians have been good on restoration of voting rights. In the 2004 primary race, for example, all Democratic presidential candidates supported restoring voting rights to people who had completed their sentences. Senator Hillary Clinton proposed federal legislation that would allow 100% of Americans who have served their time to vote in federal elections. In 2005, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack signed an executive order restoring voting rights to 100% of Iowans who completed their sentences.
Others, however, could have done much more. Former Democratic Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, for example, claims that he is proud that he streamlined the restoration application process and restored voting rights to over 3000 former felons who applied (more than any other Governor in Virginia's history).
But Warner restored voting rights to only about 1% of the 298,000 disenfranchised Virginians (161,000 of them African American) who had served their time. The problem persists in which 1 out of every 20 voting-aged Virginians cannot vote due to a felony conviction despite having completed their sentences.
Warner affirmatively refused to follow Tom Vilsack's model of issuing an executive order to restore voting rights to Virginians who had served their time, despite letters and calls requesting that he do so from leaders like Congresspersons John Conyers (Michigan), Raul M. Grijalva (Arizona), and Corrine Brown (Florida), as well as the chair of the South Carolina Black Legislative Caucus, state legislators in New Mexico and Missouri, the head of the Virginia NAACP, and other national figures like John Sweeney.
This link chronicles Warner's refusal to restore voting rights to 99% of Virginians who have completed their sentences, and responds to his reasons for not doing more.
While some have good records, we can't always rely on politicians of any party to protect voting rights. Take, for example, the Democratic Party, which is supported by a majority of Asian American, American Indian, and Latino voters, and an overwhelming majority of African Americans. Moderate Democrats often avoid discussions of race and voting rights, afraid that they will be perceived as the "black" or "brown" party and lose swing voters, especially in the South. Also, Democrats' primary interest is winning elections, not the protection of voting rights. Most politicians focus on, first and foremost, immediate political gain. To the extent we allow political gladiators to define voting rights, the rules of voting will largely advantage politicians or party interests rather than individual voters. We cannot rely on politicians alone to protect our voting rights.