Tough sledding to end the U.S.’s disgraceful felon voting bans

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 2/19/2014, 10:53 a.m.

Attorney General Eric Holder was diplomatic when he said that the time to end the full or partial bans in all but two states on ex-felons voting has long passed. The bans are little short of medieval and disgraceful at best and at worst. The states that keep the bans on their books give real meaning to the term second-class citizenship for the millions of ex-felons who are barred from the polls or must go through tortuous loops to get their voting rights restored. To no surprise, a disproportionate number of these felons are African Americans and Holder admitted as such.

What Holder didn’t say is that these are the men and women who in decades past were victims of racist poll taxes, literacy laws and political gerrymandering. They were driven from the voting booths by physical harassment, threats and intimidation by bigoted sheriffs and voter registrars. As heinous and deplorable as that was, it at least made some perverse sense only because blatant Jim Crow racist voter disenfranchisement had a clear political intent and that was to preserve white political power in and outside the South. That intent almost certainly was still very much a factor in the political calculus of the GOP in the immediate decades after the collapse of legal segregation. Studies showed that the majority of the ex-felons, if allowed to vote, would overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Those votes could easily have made the difference for Democratic candidates in close state and national elections in some states.

That calculus seems to have been scrapped by more and more Republicans, including ultra-conservatives, who now say the bans should be modified or tossed. The apparent sea change is due in part to the worry of many Republicans over the outlandish and bloated costs of keeping tens of thousands of mostly non-violent felons warehoused in jails and prisons and in part over a sense that felon voting bans make a terrible mockery of the paper American admonition that once a felon pays their debt to society they are entitled to a second chance. It’s a matter of simple fairness.

But paying lip service to fairness is no consolation to the black men and women who wind up behind bars. The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, estimates that in the next few years 40 percent of black men may permanently be barred from the polls in the states with this restriction.

In the past, it was easy to call this a good policy that makes it even rougher on lawbreakers. But it never was. The U.S. is now the only country in the world with blatantly discriminatory laws that ban a person from voting for life based on a criminal offense. Many of the men that are stripped of their right to vote are not convicted murderers, rapists or robbers. Most are not denied the vote because of a court imposed sentence, since no states require that a judge bar an offender from voting as part of a criminal sentence, because of the seriousness of the crime or severity of the sentence.