An Inalienable Right, Alien to Five Million Americans

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“-> Vote Here Vote Aquí ->” by myJon is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Daniel Hannan, Staff Writer

Since the founding of the United States, many citizens have taken their right to vote and ability to influence American democracy for granted. Only recently has another group of Americans been able to fight for and earn their right to votecurrent and ex-felons. Ex-felons, who are disproportionately African-American, are being granted the right to vote by state legislatures. Despite some states granting ex-felons the right to vote, there exists a large difference amongst the laws of these different states. It has been common practice for states to bar felons or other “infamous criminals” from voting. In states like Alabama, Tennessee, and Arizona, the only recourse that exists for ex-felons to regain their right to vote are special measures such as a governor’s pardon. While those states have made the path to regaining the right to vote more difficult, states like New York, Florida, and Texas have all made it easier for ex-felons to regain their right to vote, either by granting it after a person has completed their parole or has paid back any court debts. In Colorado and Maryland, once released from incarceration, felons will automatically be allowed to vote, although they must re-register before casting a ballot. In D.C., Maine, and Vermont, state legislatures have refused to confiscate any criminal’s right to vote, allowing them to vote while incarcerated. Many state legislatures are continuing to increase the ability for felons to vote. For example, in 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo passed an executive order allowing parolees to vote without restriction. Although these states have taken significant strides toward making voting more accessible to wider demographics, there still remains a significant number of Americans who are disenfranchised. 

In an effort to predict the number of Americans that will be disenfranchised in 2020, The Sentencing Project reviewed nationwide data on felons from 2016 and 2018. The Sentencing Project’s efforts revealed that there are currently 5.2 million disenfranchised Americans, with 4 million of them out of jail, and l.3 million of them being African-American. To understand the stark differences in the disenfranchised population between states, it’s important to look at state populations and data collected about the number of disenfranchised peoples in residence. 

To start, look at Tennessee, which has some of the strictest felon voting laws in the country. The state currently has 4,964,909 residents, with 456,480 or 9.19% of the population being disenfranchised. The African-American residency count in the state numbers 814,576, with 176,368 or 21.65% of these residents being disenfranchised. Next look at New York, which has loosened the restrictions on felon voting rights. The 2020 state population is 13,686,685, and of those thirteen odd million, 44,343 or 0.32% of the population are disenfranchised. There are 2,095,434 African-Americans in the state, with 21,402 or 1.02% of that population being disenfranchised. Lastly, Florida, has 14,724,113 residents, and a total of 1,132,493 or 7.69% of residents who are disenfranchised. African-Americans make up 2,194,488 of the state’s residents, with 338,433 or 15.42% of that population having no right to vote. For the past four years, Florida, a swing state, has received a lot of attention because of its high number of disenfranchised residents and the potential for change in state politics to occur if felons should regain their voting rights. 

In 2018, residents of Florida voted in favor of a bill granting ex-felons the right to vote. Soon after, the Republican controlled legislature, fearing that the disenfranchised population (which accounts for 15% of Florida’s population) would lean Democratic, began adding clauses to the law. Most notably, the legislature introduced the requirement that ex-felons pay back court fees and any fines before being allowed to submit a ballot. For Floridian ex-felons, this addition was particularly harmful as the state has no uniform structure for the paying of court fees, and so it is up to each individual person to discover if they have debts in any counties, determine the entity to whom they need to pay their debts to, and then actually source the money that will settle their debts. Many have begun requesting that State legislatures waive debts or turn them into community service requirements in an effort to make the path to regaining the right to vote easier and more realistic for disenfranchised peoples. Fortunately, disenfranchised individuals are not alone in their fight to regain the right to vote and have received attention and support from everything from charitable organizations to members of Hollywood’s elite. 

Organizations like the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition have helped thousands of ex-felons who would like to turn their lives around. Raising donations from contributors such as  Ariana Grande, Steven Speilburg, and Michael Bloomberg, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition grants money to ex-felons and their communities in order to pay off debts, giving an estimated $1,000 to each felon. These organizations, while well meaning, have faced massive backlash. Florida Attorney General Ashely Mooney has been working to consider these donations as unlawful inducement of a vote, mostly due to the fact that felons and their families are low income and would support democratic politicians and policies. Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, puts the system into perspective, “It’s kind of incomprehensible to think that we have to rely on the generosity of billionaires to have voting rights.” Others are calling these state statutes a new “poll tax,” comparing them to the days of Jim Crow Laws. If able to regain the right to vote, the ex-felon population in Florida could help swing the state politically, resulting in lasting effects in the state’s political trajectory

Numbering 10 million, ex-felons in the United States owe more than $50 billion collectively in court fees. This powerful and most influential group has been forced to remain  politically and socially inactive for decades, unable to realize or act on their power to influence American democratic systems.

Disclaimer: This article pulled upon coverage from The New York Times, BBC News, The Los Angeles Times, the Living Wage Calculator, and The Sentencing Project.