How felon voting policies restrict the black vote

February 12

In Florida, more than one in five black adults can’t vote. Not because they lack citizenship or haven’t registered, but because they have, at some point, been convicted of a felony.

The Sunshine State’s not alone. As in Florida, more than 20 percent of black adults have lost their right to vote in Kentucky and Virginia, too, according to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for reforms to sentencing policy that reduces racial disparities.

Three states — Florida, Iowa and Kentucky — ban anyone who has ever received a felony conviction from voting. But many other states have weaker disenfranchisement laws—ones that ban those currently serving sentences or those on parole or probation. And Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday called on them to rethink the “unnecessary and unjust” policies.

“At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression. And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear,” he said in a speech at Georgetown University’s Law Center, in Washington, D.C.

States have been ratcheting back such policies on their own. Doing so had been a running theme of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s time in office, for example. But more than 1 in 15 adults — all adults — in Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida can’t currently vote because of felon bans. Those states spend more than $6 billion combined on corrections, with more than 3 million people disenfranchised.

The Southeast has it worst

Total disenfranchisement rates are highest in the Southeast, as this map from a 2010 Sentencing Project report shows. Seven of the 10 states with the highest disenfranchisement rates among all adults are in that region.


Cartogram of disenfranchisement rates, 2010. (Sentencing Project)

Disenfranchisement is as high as 10 percent of all adults in Florida

These maps show felon disenfranchisement in each state as a share of all adults and as a share of all black adults.

Total disenfranchisement:

Black disenfranchisement:

Only two states have no such voting bans

Maine and Vermont are the only two states in the nation that allow prisoners, probationers and parolees to vote even as they’re serving their sentence, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Felons are banned from voting while serving their sentence in 21 states. And the three states mentioned above have permanent bans for all felons. The remaining states have a mix of bans that allow only certain individuals with a criminal history to vote.


State felon disenfranchisement laws. (Source: ACLU)

The number of disenfranchised people has grown nearly five times since the mid-1970s

Felon disenfranchisement fell between 1960 and 1976 “as states began to expand voting rights in the civil rights era,” the Sentencing Project found in its report. Since then, the number has grown nearly 500 percent to 5.8 million, while the population has grown by less than 150 percent. 


Growth to disenfranchisement over time. (Sentencing Project)

Black disenfranchisement rates have also multiplied

Felon disenfranchisement among black adults has multiplied over the past few decades, as the maps below show. In 1980, only two states had black disenfranchisement rates above 10 percent. By 2010, nine states had rates above 10 percent with three of those states being home to disenfranchisement rates north of 20 percent.


Black felon disenfranchisement rates, 1980. (Sentencing Project)

 


Black felon disenfranchisement rates, 2010. (Sentencing Project)
Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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