Voting Rights and Disenfranchisement

Voting Rights and Disenfranchisement

The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution gave black men the right to vote five years after the Civil War ended. Black women won that right, along with other adult females, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified fifty years later. However, having the right on paper and being able to exercise it were two different things for many years. In the late 1800’s and through much of the early years of the twentieth century African Americans were systematically disenfranchised of their right to vote in many parts of the country through blatant intimidation, poll taxes, literacy tests, or threats of lynching.

With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 many of those illegal barriers to black citizens’ voting were destroyed and the tide of African Americans’ disenfranchisement reversed. This led to tremendous political strides by African Americans in the United States, culminating in the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Since that historic election a number of states have passed laws in their states making it more difficult for people without a specific type of government issued photo identification card to vote. Those impacted by this new wave of disenfranchisement will more than likely mostly affect inner-city African Americans, young Hispanic voters, senior citizens, and students who may have school or college identification cards, but not the state mandated cards.

Since 2008 some states have adopted these new rules concerning state issued identification cards on the basis that it will prevent voter fraud. However, there is little or no evidence in the United States of wide-spread voter fraud in our national elections. Instead, it appears that the reasons for these new voter identification laws are to suppress the vote of otherwise eligible voters by making it inconvenient to obtain such card, and by threatening others that they should not vote because they may be charged with “voter fraud” and be sent to jail. Again, it appears that such identification card laws are aimed at suppressing the votes of inner-city African Americans, young Hispanic voters, senior citizens, and students who may have only school or college identification cards. Before we as a society buy into this need to suppress the vote it might be wise to learn a bit more about the history of voter disenfranchisement.

The right to vote in federal elections is determined by the voting laws in place in one’s state of resident. At least forty-six states prohibit prisoners serving a felony sentence from voting. Another thirty-two states deny the vote to persons on probation or parole for a felony offense. In a number of states and the District of Columbia, convicted felons are not allowed to vote for a period of up to ten years after their convictions. This means that over one-half million African American men may never be eligible to vote in their lifetimes.

Voting disenfranchisement in the U.S. is the heritage from ancient Greek and Roman traditions carried to Europe. In medieval times in Europe, infamous offenders suffered civil death which entailed the deprivation of all rights, confiscation of property, and even death. In England, civil disabilities intended to debase offenders and cut them off from the community were accomplished via bills of attainder – that is, a person convicted of a felony was subject to forfeiture of his property to the king and was considered civilly dead.

English colonists brought these concepts with them to the New World. With independence from England, the newly formed states rejected some of the civil disabilities inherited from Europe. However, criminal disenfranchisement was among those retained. In the mid-nineteenth century, nineteen of the then thirty-four existing states excluded serious offenders from the vote.

The exclusion of convicted felons from the vote took on new significance after the Civil War and passage of the Fifteenth Amendment which gave blacks the right to vote. Although laws excluding criminals from the vote had existed in the South previously, between 1890 and 1910 many southern states tailored their criminal disenfranchisement laws to increase the effect of these laws on black citizens. Crimes that triggered disenfranchisement were written to include crimes that blacks supposedly committed more frequently than whites and to exclude crimes whites were believed to commit more frequently. As examples, in South Carolina, among the disqualifying crimes were several the lawmakers felt “the Negro” was especially prone to: theft, adultery, arson, wife beating, housebreaking, and attempted rape. By contrast, such crimes as murder and fighting, to which the white man was presumed, as disposed as the Negro, were significantly omitted from the list.

This is a sad and hateful history concerning voting disenfranchisement. As a result of felon disenfranchisement, the Washington, D.C. based Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization, has released a study that estimates that the impact of felony disenfranchisement means that approximately thirteen percent of black adult males cannot vote as a result of a current or prior felony sentence. This has been a shameful way for Americans to suppress the voting rights of African Americans in the United States.

It is time for thinking Americans not to compound this injustice by passing voter identification laws that will further suppress the votes of inner-city African Americans, young Hispanic voters, senior citizens and students who may have only school or college identification cards on the false and pretextual assumption that this will prevent voter fraud.