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Votes From Within

by Boston Woodard
Voices from inside the Prison Industrial Complex
Votes From Within
The Disenfranchisement of American Citizens
By: Boston Woodard

Have you ever wondered about the number of people, United States citizens, who have been disenfranchised from voting in general elections due to past criminal convictions? There are many politicians throughout America speaking in favor to allow felons to vote again.

Prisoner’s rights advocates are finding support in some civil rights organizations and prominent political leaders. The argument is that this disenfranchisement composes unjust punishment to a large number of Unites States citizens.

According to the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, both well-known research organizations, one in five African American men cannot vote because of their criminal records. The effort to change this madness has never been more popular.

Changing this system of voting depravation for felons has gained more support among Democrats then Republicans, a concern advocated mainly by so-called “liberals.” Many moderates on both sides are reluctant to repudiate the idea for fear of appearing racists, given the felony voting laws disproportionate effect on minorities.

Those in favor of restoring the Constitutional right to vote back to the prisoners, contend that disenfranchisement laws stifle due justice for millions of U.S. citizens after they have completed their sentences successfully. The same citizens have returned to society as very productive Americans. It will not be an easy battle.

According to John F. Cosgrove, Democrat in the Florida House of Representatives, “You probably are going to see a cautious approach to this, even among most of the Democrats.”

There are several public interest lawyers in Florida who are exploring civil rights lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of criminal disenfranchisement laws; this mirrors efforts elsewhere. In Texas, where an estimated 4.5 percent of the adult population and 21 percent of the African American male population are disenfranchised, has eliminated a two-year waiting period that was required before a felon could apply for restoration of voting rights.

Legislation to make it easier to restore voting rights for felons in Alabama failed several years ago on a tie vote in the legislature. In Alabama, where 7.5 percent of adults and nearly 31.5 percent of African American men are banned from voting. Sponsors say they are optimistic that a similar measure will succeed very soon.

The numbers of disenfranchisement vary widely from state to state. In 46 states and District of Columbia, felons are prohibited from voting while in prison. In addition, 32 states prohibit offenders from voting while on parole and 29 bar voting while on probation. Felons are banned for life from voting in 14 states, a prohibition that can be waived only through a gubernatorial pardon or some other form of clemency. Only four states -- Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont -- allow prisoners to vote.
The practice of stripping criminals of their civil rights is rooted in ancient Greek and Roman traditions and has always been a part of U.S. law. Some scholars have pointed out that in several states those laws were honed with racist intent.

In 1993, Andrew L. Shapiro wrote in a Yale Law review article, “Many southern states tailored their criminal disenfranchisement laws, along with other qualifications, to increase the effect of these laws on black citizens.” Shapiro said that toward the end of the last century, disenfranchisement laws were often crafted to include crimes that blacks supposedly committed more frequently than whites.

Alabama State Representative Yvonne Kennedy stated, “The statistics on this issue are really frightening.... With the huge number of people disenfranchised, you’re really not open to all of the citizenry in making decisions.’

Another State Representative in Alabama, Michael D. Rogers said, “It is not asking too much for these folks to petition to have their rights restored,” who in the past had opposed efforts to ease the process for restoring felon rights.

The sharp increase in the number of disenfranchised people has prompted major civil rights groups, including Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and the NAACP, to make restoring voting rights for felons a priority. The effort is also supported by many national religious organizations, including the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and the National Council of Churches.


Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist who has written for the San Quentin News and the Soledad Star, and edited The Communicator. The Department of Corrections has pulled the plug on all three publications.
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