If asked, most people would say that the right to vote is fundamental – that it is a right so precious that it should be protected at all costs.  But today, according to the Sentencing Project, an estimated 6.1 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction, a number equivalent to 2.5|PERCENT| of the U.S. voting-age population. Given the systemic racism inherent in our justice system the effects have been disastrous for minority and poor communities.  Felony disenfranchisement deprives 1 in 13 African Americans the right to vote while only impacting 1 in 56 of non-black citizens.  

And it is statistics like these and the long history of State’s continuing efforts to disenfranchise minority voters why NAPD endorsed a letter asking to restore voting rights to all currently and formerly incarcerated citizens. 

When written the United States Constitution did not define who was eligible to vote.  Each state was and still is, within certain restrictions, allowed to determine who can vote. Originally, most states allowed only white male adult property owners to vote. This was, and continues to be, about protecting political power. Some progress was made in the post-Civil War era when four constitutional amendments were ratified to extend voting rights to different groups of citizens.  These amendments define the restrictions on States today regarding disenfranchisement.

  • "Race, color, or previous condition of servitude" (15th Amendment, 1870)
  • "On account of sex" (19th Amendment, 1920)
  • "By reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax" for federal elections (24th Amendment, 1964)
  • "Who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age" (26th Amendment, 1971)

Of course, even with the 15th Amendment, individual states, through the enactment of Jim Crow laws, such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and religious tests denied non-white citizens voting rights. Over time, these laws were finally found to be unconstitutional violations of the 15th Amendment.

But not to be deterred we began the era of felony disenfranchisement.  States started, and have continued, to resort to criminal laws to continue the long and dishonorable efforts to disenfranchise minorities. Prisoner voting rights are defined by individual states, and the laws vary across the country. Some states allow citizens on probation to vote. Others allow citizens on parole and probation. And some impose a lifelong denial of the right to vote to all citizens with a felony record.

The United States is the leader of the world in incarceration rates with a higher proportion of its population in prison than any other Western nation. The United State saw an incarceration rate increase 500|PERCENT| from the 1970s to the 1990s, with a massive disproportionate impact on minorities.

If we truly want people to be rehabilitated should we not keep them engaged in one of the most fundamental rights a citizen has – the right to vote.  How can this endanger our society?  Engaging in pro-social behaviors is a foundation of rehabilitation.  Have we not taken enough by taking a person’s liberty? If we allow the right to vote be taken simply by the commission of a felony it is simply another method of suppressing non-white voting based upon the grossly disproportionate impact that enforcement of criminal laws have on minority communities.  As a voice for our clients NAPD has said enough is enough.  All adult citizens should be allowed to vote.