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During the 2016 election; over 300,000 people in Kentucky — nearly 1 in 10 Kentuckians —had a felony conviction that barred them from voting. Included in those who’d been stripped of their voting rights was 26 percent of the state’s Black population — the highest Black disenfranchisement rate in country.
Late last year, in one of his first official acts in office, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear issued an executive order restoring the right to Kentuckians who’d completed their sentences for nonviolent felonies aside from a handful of nonviolent exceptions such as election bribery.
To date, this executive order has made the restoration of voting rights newly available to more than 175,000 Kentuckians.
That number may not seem of particular consequence as our presidential elections draw more than 100 million American voters to the polls every four years. But, the electoral college increases the significance of a few tens of thousands of votes greatly, particularly in Republican controlled states. In our last presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes and Donald Trump still took the presidency.
Many analysts attribute this outcome to the results of three states in particular, driving home the importance of a relatively small number of votes. Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by just 10,704; 46,765; and 22,177 votes; respectively. Clinton garnering one more percentage point in each of those three states — a total of 80,000 votes — would have circumvented a Republican victory in that election.
Across the country, 6.1 million Americans could not vote due to felony disenfranchisement in 2016. Despite various reform efforts to address this issue, 5.2 million Americans remain disenfranchised, according to an in-depth report by the Sentencing Project. These rates have surged since the 1970s when the number of disenfranchised Americans never surpassed 1.5 million, reflecting the effects of mass incarceration and targeted disenfranchisement campaigns, particularly in southern states.
There are a wide range of voting prohibitions, from state to state, resulting in varying disenfranchisement rates. For example, in the Republican controlled states of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, harsh disenfranchisement laws have rendered more than 8 percent of the populations of these states unable to vote. While in places like Vermont and Maine, the whitest states in the country, everyone is allowed to vote — even those currently incarcerated.
Organizations nationwide like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and JustLeadershipUSA are working to rectify this disenfranchisement. Executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Desmond Meade, who recently had his voting rights restored after three decades, led the movement that resulted in the approval of Amendment 4, “a ballot measure that restored voting rights to nearly 1.5 million people with past felony convictions,” in Florida. An additional million votes in a state like Florida could mean winning the state in an election. In 2000, gave George W. Bush the presidency over Al Gore and he won it by only 537 votes.
In Alabama, despite its high disenfranchisement, a 2017 easing of the state’s disenfranchisement law cleared the path to re-enfranchise thousands of Alabamans. This likely played a role in the stunning victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore, an accused pedophile, in the special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ senate seat. This was the first time a Democrat had been elected to represent Alabama in the Senate in a quarter century.
Even after the struggle to pass legislation expanding voting rights is won, many states burden those hoping to restore their rights with poll tax-like financial obligations related to their convictions. Despite poll taxes being outlawed by the 24th amendment, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, and South Dakota, still deny re-enfranchisement indefinitely due to unpaid court fines, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
In Florida alone, the poll taxes themselves stand in the way of an estimated 770,000 people and the ballot box.
As one might expect, disenfranchisement through convictions and poll taxes disproportionately impacts Black voters in a substantial way. According to the Sentencing Project report, one in 16 Black people of voting age is disenfranchised, which is 3.7 times that of all non-Black people of voting age, nationwide. These rates are significantly higher in places like Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming, where more than one in seven Black people of voting age is disenfranchised, twice the national average for Black people of voting age.
Systemic racism in voting has existed since the beginning of voting in this country. In 1870, the 15th amendment passed, theoretically banning race-based voter disenfranchisement. Of course, women would not be given the right to vote for another 50 years, but Black and Indigenous men were also strategically kept from voting through means such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of violence.
Ironically, it was the language of the 14th amendment, which officially made slavery a violation of the constitution, that would be used to grow the disenfranchisement numbers by the millions over the 150 years following its passage. The amendment expressly states that your rights and freedom can be stripped away if you’re convicted of a crime. In its current interpretation, the amendment actually acts as a constitutionally protected loophole through which states can suppress votes.
In a state like Alabama, lawmakers in 1901, with the stated intent of keeping Black people from voting, declared people “convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude” unable to vote and unable to restore that right. That law was in place for over a hundred years.
Fast forward to the 1960s, Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, which continues to fill jails and tear apart families and communities, was designed specifically with disenfranchisement in mind. A 2016 article from Harper’s revealed, for the first time, a quote from Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, acknowledging the targeted campaign:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968 had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying?” asked Ehrlichman, who served time in prison for his role in the Watergate Scandal. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,” Ehrlichman continued. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Throughout history, mainly conservative politicians have gone out of their way to remove Black voters from the political process through criminalization. Attempting to undo these nefarious efforts through policy, still leaves organizers with a Sisyphean task of somehow making contact with all of those eligible for re-enfranchisement, getting them registered, and getting them to the polls. According to a Cambridge study from 2019, “even a misdemeanor charge leading to a short jail sentence — often of only a few days or weeks — can lead to a significant decrease in the likelihood of future voting.” These effects are heavily concentrated among Black voters.
In response to a recent interview question regarding Trump and the election, Snoop Dogg remarked, “I ain’t never voted a day in my life, but this year I think I’m going to get out and vote because I can’t stand to see this punk in office one more year.”
The reason he gave for his lapses in participation in the political process was that he’d been led to believe that he couldn’t vote due to his two felony convictions 1990 and 2007. This belief is not out of the ordinary. It is widely assumed, in many Black communities, that a felony conviction automatically mean you can no longer vote —and in some states, this is correct. In fact, this is an issue that voting rights activists note as one of the most significant roadblocks to mobilizing disenfranchised populations.
An example that illustrates this bleak reality is the voting rights movement in Louisiana. Despite the passage laws expanding voting rights in the state, last year, of the potential 36,000 re-enfranchised people; only 581 registered to vote in the six months after legislation was passed.
What we know about disenfranchisement is that its roots are racist and there is no evidence that it reduces recidivism, in fact, the opposite appears to be true. We know that, at least in some instances, attempts to disenfranchise citizens for political gain people results in heavily criminalizing already vulnerable communities for actions, like drug use, that the government should be providing support for.
At minimum, it is necessary to normalize acknowledging out loud that the intended goal of this type of legislation is to weaken the political power of Black voters, and to begin prioritizing the need for a revision of the 14th amendment language that protects stripping rights that should be inalienable. Not centering this issue means we’re accepting the constant redesigning of laws — to align with current societal standards — that disproportionately relegate Black people to second-class citizens.