How Both Democrats and Republicans Are Complicit in Disenfranchising America

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.

Tags: disenfranchisement, mark warner, restoration, Voting Rights (all tags)



Re: Disenfranchising Americans

It has it's roots in racism, there is no doubt about that. And it isn't limited to florida, either.

by shirt 2006-07-31 07:59AM | 0 recs
Re: Complicity

Sigh -- I understand that this "Democrats are just as bad as Republicans" business leads well, but it's wrong.

Constitutional Right to Vote: 60 sponsors, every one a Democrat.

Voter Verified Paper Trail: 186 Dem sponsors, 15 Republicans (12:1 ratio)

You mention felon restoration (from every presidential candidate, Clinton, Vilsack), and of course third parties and Dems are the only institutional supporters for IRV and Clean Money as well.

Frankly, your focus on the Democrats is counterproductive. Yes, Warner could have done more, but he did a lot, and a lot more than other ambitious southern governors have done in the last decade.

If you want to claim "complicity," show me the strong Republican support for re-enfranchising voters, or reforming the system to expand citizen participation. Show me the Republican Constitutional Right-to-Vote Amendment.

Or just skip the logic and get this run in Blueprint. Whatever. We heard the same "they're all the same" B.S. surrounding Abramoff, and it's a lazy argument which ultimately damages the real work progressives do for the cause you're advocating.

by scvmws 2006-07-31 08:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Complicity

Agreed.. given the content shouldn't the above have been titled: "How Republicans and SOME Democrats..."  

The reality is that the Democrats had power for a long long time, and power corrupts, plain and simple. We have a lot of the same Democrats in power now that we did when the republicans took over by promising to end corruption in 1994. In the End the enemy of populist democratic government in America is the system itself. As soon as the advent of Television made big ad buys and by extension big ad agencies the top dogs within political circles, we knew the corruption of the process would snowball. What we have today is the direct result of that. I think thomas jefferson would be appalled at our current lobbying structure and executive heavy government.

by TimThe Terrible 2006-07-31 08:56AM | 0 recs
Florida Elections 101

1- Felons need not apply.

2- African Americans and other minorities must first maneuver road blocks successfully.

3- Students will quickly learn that voting is hard work and that it takes a keen mind to participate in the democratic process. s/stories/041025fdle.html

When the machine starts counting backwards, like it did in my blue county, don't worry. When the exit polls don't match up with the official result, don't worry. There's no agency to handle election "incidents" because we don't need them. You can always vote absentee. Don't worry, your ballot is in the mail.

Seriously folks, voter reform is not a partisan issue. Deal with it.

by misscee 2006-07-31 09:05AM | 0 recs
Re: Florida Elections 101

I forgot to remind those of you who share a last name with a felon, you'll need to fill out a name change form in a timely manner. That is, if you want to vote in the upcoming election.

by misscee 2006-07-31 09:08AM | 0 recs
Warner vs. George & Jeb Bush


1)  The original post did not say that Democrats and Republicans were "all the same."  Indeed, it listed a number of politicians, all Democrats, who have worked to enfranchise former felons who completed their sentences.  Certainly distinctions can be made among Democrats on issues, as I assume that many are doing by distinguishing Lieberman from Lamont.

2)    You claim Warner did "a lot more than other ambitious southern governors have done in the last decade." Actually, in 1997 a southern governor named George W. Bush restored voting rights to 100% of people who had completed their sentences.  Also, just as Mark Warner used the restoration process to restore rights to just over 3000 people, in the past six years another southern governor named Jeb Bush has restored voting rights to over 48,000 Americans who have served their time (certainly inadequate compared to the 957,423 in Florida that remain disenfranchised, but a higher raw number and higher percentage (5%) than Virginia).

by Spencer Overton 2006-07-31 09:05AM | 0 recs
Re: Warner vs. George & Jeb Bush

Spencer neglects to mention that Governor Warner pushed for legislation to open the process up and the Republican legislature killed it.  So working within the gubernatorial approval system he was given, he streamlined the process and approved 95% of the petitions from people who bothered to apply. Neither of the brothers Bush faced hostile legislatures -- Jeb had a Republican majority and W. worked closely with the conservative Democratic majority in the Texas legislature.

What's the source for the 298,000 number you cite?

by Texas Nate 2006-07-31 01:44PM | 0 recs
Overton Speaks!

The author will be speaking in DC next week!

9. Wednesday, August 2nd 7:00 - 9:00 p.m. A reception for Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression; a new book by: Spencer Overton, Professor of Law, George Washington University; Faculty Advisor to GWU Law's ACS Chapter.  Held at Busboys and Poets, 14th & V Sts. NW, Washington, D.C.  Phone: 202-387-POET   Read more by going to

by howardpark 2006-07-31 10:37AM | 0 recs
Re: How Both Democrats and Republicans

It became apparent to me that both parties are complicit in disenfranchising Americans when NOT ONE Democratic senator stood by the CBC in 2000 against what had been perpetrated in FL.

Since then I've only seen more of it.

by Sitkah 2006-07-31 11:04AM | 0 recs
Re: How Both Democrats and Republicans Are Complic

First off, I agree with the posters above who noted the false equivalency.  The mainstream media does this to us all the time "both sides do it, everybody's bad, get jaded and stay uninvolved because the whole thing is corrupt and makes no difference."  Progressive and Democratic websites don't need to reinforce those narratives, especially since they aren't true.

Second, there is one group of ex-felons for whom I support lifetime disenfranchisement.  Those who are convicted of felonies that involve vote fraud, election manipulation, or the like should barred from the political process forever.

by libdevil 2006-07-31 11:13AM | 0 recs
Re: How Both Democrats and Republicans Are Complic

Speaking of Virginia,

Like poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, felony disenfranchisement laws were intentionally manipulated during Reconstruction to exclude African Americans from the political process. White lawmakers in the Jim Crow era were not shy about their goal."This plan," said one delegate to the Virginia Convention of 1906, which established strict felony disenfranchisement laws and other barriers to black participation, "will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county . . . will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government."

source  (pdf)

by dblhelix 2006-07-31 05:43PM | 0 recs
Mark Warner v. Bush Brothers

Texas Nate:

1)  As executive, Governor Warner had the power to issue a blanket executive order restoring voting rights to all 298,000 former felons who had served their time without approval from the Republican legislature.  This is what Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack did in restoring voting rights to people who had served their time.  Similarly, Jeb Bush did not have to go to the Florida legislature to get approval to restore voting rights to 48,000.  I agree with you that George W. Bush worked with the legislature in Texas to restore rights to 317,000 former felons who had served their time.

2)  The source for the 298,000 disenfranchised former felons who have served their time in Virginia is the book by policial scientists Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen, Locked Out:  Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy (2006 Oxford University Press), pg. 250.  The actual number is 297,901, and it is based on data from December 31, 2004 (the earlier 243,000 number is based on 2000 data).      

3)  Governor Warner was great on DNA, managing government efficiently, and a variety of other issues.  I like him on all of those other issues.  Voting rights for former felons who completed their sentences, however, is an area in which his efforts solved only 1% of the problem, despite the fact that he had the power to solve 100% of the problem by issuing an executive order restoring voting rights to all people who had served their time.

by Spencer Overton 2006-07-31 07:13PM | 0 recs
Re: Mark Warner v. Bush Brothers

A blanket order would have been overturned by the legislature most probably and sparked a battle that could have jeopardized a number of other progressive gains.

Can you elaborate on how they calculated the numbers? The commonwealth of Virginia has no tracking of how many persons convicted of felonies there are who never entered the Corrections system; how many persons released from incarceration stayed in Virginia; or how many persons convicted of federal felonies and of felonies from other states now live in Virginia. We know some things, for instance, the Virginia Department of Corrections reported it released about 10,000 persons in 2004.  Each previous year that number has been a few hundred less.  But that is not nearly enough information to say what the felon population is.  

by Texas Nate 2006-08-01 05:59AM | 0 recs
Mark Warner and Disenfranchisement in Virginia

Texas Nate

1)  You state "[a] blanket order would have been overturned by the legislature most probably."   I'm interested in your legal analysis of how the Virginia legislature, under the Virginia Constitution, could unilaterally strip voting rights from 298,000 former offenders who have served their time once the executive of the state has restored those rights.  

2)  Perhaps important political deals on other "progressive gains" would have been jeopardized had Governor Warner restored voting rights during his last month in office.  It seems, however, that such a "trade off" approach plays politics with voting rights, advancing other issues by sacrificing the voting rights of 5% of all voting-aged Virginians, including 25% of African American men in the Commonwealth. Different people have different priorities, although the language in the one person/one vote case suggests that voting rights deserve special protection:  "the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights."  

3)    With regard to discovering the methodology in arriving at the 298,000 number of former felons disenfranchised in Virginia, people interested in the issue should buy the book "Locked Out" or contact Professor Chris Uggen.  His website is  He is recognized as one of the leading scholars on this issue.

by Spencer Overton 2006-08-01 08:57AM | 0 recs
Re: Mark Warner and Disenfranchisement in Virginia

The legislature can always pass a law that overturns an executive order (which is always trumped by the Code of Virginia or ultimately the Virginia Constitution), and if vetoed by the Governor, a 2/3 majority can override the veto.

I'd say the single largest investment in K-12 education in Virginia history for a million schoolchildren is the kind of priority that could be jeopardized by attempting to unilaterally restore rights to people who have committed felony crimes and have not bothered to inquire as to how to get their rights restored.

But the main thing is Governor Warner pushed for a broader process, streamlined and pushed hard on the existing process, and made a long list of gains for the lowest income, most disenfranchised Virginians in a difficult political environment.  

by Texas Nate 2006-08-01 12:46PM | 0 recs
Mark Warner and Disenfranchisement

Texas Nate:

1)  In light of the fact that the Virginia constitution requires more than a simple majority of the legislature to disenfranchise these Americans, and that fact that 60% of Virginians believe that people should be able to vote once they've served their time, I don't know that it is "probable" that an executive order restoring voting rights to 298,000 Virginians who have served their time would be overturned by the legislature.

2)  You mention "people who have committed felony crimes and have not bothered to inquire as to how to get their rights restored."  First, for many people, their brush with the law is a bad time in their lives, and they understandably don't want to revisit that time by filling out paperwork.  

Second, this is about more than an "individual" right--it is about dilution of the African American vote and that of other Virginians.  The purpose of voting is to determine the will of the people and obtain a government of, for, and by the people, and Virginia falls short.  

Third, your characterization--which seems to suggest that schoolchildren are worthy of political investment but that former felons are not--sounds like the arguments of people who support felon disenfranchisement, or at least of those who don't prioritize the issue of restoring voting rights to people who have served their time.  And if that's where you are--and if that's where Gov. Warner is--that's fine.  Just say it.  

3)  Gov. Warner has done a lot of good things in Virginia, but on felon disenfranchisement he made a mistake.  That's fine.  Tiger Woods makes mistakes but still goes on to win major tournaments.  We all make mistakes.  The primary thing is to recognize the mistake, and move on in the future (like supporting a federal law that would allow everyone who has completed their sentence to vote in federal elections).  Spinning the past mistake on felon disenfranchisement raises credibility questions, and detracts from all of the good things that Gov. Warner has done in other areas.    

by Spencer Overton 2006-08-02 06:35AM | 0 recs
Re: Mark Warner and Disenfranchisement

We agree that systematic disenfranchisement is a serious problem and I think your suggestion in point three is a good one.

However, your analysis of the situation in the Virginia legislature circa 2003 - 2004 strikes me as willfully naive. The idea that a Republican majority legislature is going to be swayed by poll numbers is laughable. This is the same era when the national Republican leadership was bringing us the Terry Schaivo fiasco, the bankruptcy bill, the medicare bill, etc etc

Finally, please feel free to question my credibility at will, but don't attribute my failings to Governor Warner.

by Texas Nate 2006-08-04 06:16AM | 0 recs

My analysis of the situation involves Nov.-Dec. 2005, not 2003-04.  And in 2005, it is doubtful that the Virginia legislature would have had the power to take away voting rights from the 300,000 Americans whose rights had been restored by the Governor through executive order.

by Spencer Overton 2006-10-10 04:56PM | 0 recs


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