From Tue Oct 3 11:45:34 2000
From: "Sadanand, Nanjundiah (Physics)" <>
Subject: Black men losing the right to vote
Date: Tue, 3 Oct 2000 09:58:48 -0400

By Salim Muwakkil, 30 To 40 Percent Of The Next Generation Of Black Men Can Expect To Lose Their Right To Vote

By Salim Muwakkil, Chicago Tribune, Monday 2 September 2000

The black vote is such a precious political commodity these days that even a notorious xenophobe like Pat Buchanan felt the need to make a symbolic gesture to the black electorate by picking Ezola Foster, a black woman, for a running mate. As a member of the John Birch Society’s Speakers Bureau, however, Foster’s value as a black symbol is limited. Still, Buchanan’s ‘outreach’ illustrates the growing currency of the black vote.

But just as African-Americans are becoming more adept at wielding that currency, their voting power is being corroded by antiquated state laws that bar former inmates from voting. In the November elections, 13 percent of all adult black men will be ineligible to vote because of such laws. If current trends continue, experts predict that 30 to 40 percent of the next generation of black men can expect to lose their right to vote at some point in their lifetimes.

Attempting to disrupt those trends, a coalition of civil-rights groups two weeks ago filed a lawsuit challenging a Florida law that permanently strips ex-felons of the right to vote. Florida was targeted because it has the largest number of disenfranchised ex-felons in the country and because, the suit charges, the 1868 law was enacted specifically to deny blacks the right to vote. The suit argues that the Florida law has a racially discriminatory effect and thus is unconstitutional.

The ultimate aim of the action is to challenge all state laws that disenfranchise ex-felons. Similar action is being mounted in Congress, where Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) last year introduced the Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act, which would restore the right to vote in federal elections to individuals who have been released from prison. These are two of the most prominent efforts to challenge antiquated state statutes that restrict democracy.

Although disenfranchisement laws have been on the books since the founding of the Republic, all previously excluded groups, except convicted felons, now have the right to vote. Laws barring the vote to felons took on an added significance after the Civil War and (especially in the southern states) specifically targeted the descendents of enslaved Africans. In fact, the criminal-justice system became an effective tool to undermine the abolishment of slavery and enforce traditional racial hierarchy.

The 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery in America, except for convicted felons. To frustrate the liberating aims of the amendment, citizens of the defeated Confederate states were able to re-enslave many blacks by crafting laws that criminalized their behavior. When the 15th Amendment extended the voting franchise to former slaves, Southern states hastily enacted laws forbidding ex-felons (many of whom were newly criminalized blacks) from voting. Currently, 46 states and the District of Columbia have laws that deprive inmates of the right to vote (the four states that permit inmate voting are Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont). Thirty-six states further deny the vote to people on probation and/or parole and in 14 states a felon can be barred from voting for life. The skyrocketing growth of a racially disparate inmate population, triggered by the so-called war on drugs, has worsened the discriminatory effects of these electoral prohibitions. Several recent studies have documented the biased treatment of African-Americans at every level of the criminal-justice system.

According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, 2 percent of all Americans, or 3.9 million, have lost the right to vote because of felony convictions. African-Americans represent 36 percent of that total, reflecting a rate of disenfranchisement that is seven times the national average. In the states of Florida and Alabama, one in three black men is permanently disenfranchised and in seven other states that ratio is near 25 percent. In states that permanently bar the vote to convicted felons, the study noted, as many as 40 percent of black men may permanently be disenfranchised.

Disenfranchisement laws are so destructive of democratic values they can hardly be justified except as part of an exclusivist tradition. And, again the U.S. is out of step with other democracies, most of which have concluded that laws stripping the vote from former inmates defeat the very purposes of incarceration: rehabilitation and public safety. The 1998 study noted that no other democracy besides the United States disenfranchised former inmates for life. Many countries even allow prisoners to vote.

We may celebrate American democracy in our political rhetoric but our policies are stuck in a racist rut.