The Sentencing Project released a study yesterday showing that about 14 percent of black men in Atlanta cannot vote because they are in prison, on probation or on parole.
A study of Providence by the Rhode Island Family Life Center, released simultaneously with the Atlanta report, had similar findings. That study showed that 32 percent of black men from ages 18 to 34 could not vote, compared with 3 percent of white men and 10 percent of Hispanics.
The Georgia findings are important, said Ryan S. King, a co-author of the study, because the laws barring felons from voting "are representative of a number of other states. . . . We do believe the trend we see in Atlanta neighborhoods is representative of trends we would see across the country."
Black men in Atlanta were 11 times more likely than nonblack men to be disenfranchised, the study showed. In 11 of the city's neighborhoods, more than 10 percent of 11,689 black males were disenfranchised. Less than 2 percent of nonblack males are not allowed to vote in the city, compared with 14 percent of black males.
In this campaign season, where the race for president is being hotly contested and the vote is expected to be razor close, depriving prisoners and those on parole of the right to vote has become a key issue. An estimated 5 million Americans are affected by felony voting restrictions. Black males account for about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 40 percent of the prison population, studies show.
King and others, mainly Democrats, have said the disproportionately high incarceration rates of African Americans, coupled with the revocation of voting rights of felons, casts a pall on voting.
"Disenfranchisement goes beyond the people affected," King said. "It radiates throughout the community. In these neighborhoods where a significant number is restricted from voting, it affects even those who can vote, because their political voice is being diluted."
Republicans have countered that activists hoping to restore voting rights to ex-convicts are more interested in political gamesmanship than civic altruism.
Peter N. Kirsanow, a conservative member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said "most state disenfranchisement laws don't have blanket prohibitions against felon voting."
Writing for the National Review, he said, the aim of groups such as the Sentencing Project "is nothing less than the wholesale restoration of voting rights to all convicts -- and that suggests an agenda that's more partisan that altruistic."
Voter disenfranchisement is as old as the Constitution. But historians say its enforcement intensified after Reconstruction, when former slaves asserted their right to vote.
"In the 20th century, criminal disenfranchisement became more baldfaced," said Jessie Allen, an associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. "You found deliberate felony disenfranchisement, such as a 1901 constitution in Alabama that selectively disenfranchised African Americans for crimes they were supposedly prone to commit."
Florida, which decided the 2000 presidential election, bars former convicts from voting for life, without permission from a clemency board. President Bush won the state by slightly more than 500 votes; had ex-convicts been allowed to vote, he likely would have lost, according to studies showing that felons tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Besides Florida, seven other states including Virginia bar convicts and former convicts from voting for life if they fail to appeal. Maryland puts restrictions on certain criminal categories. In the District, felony convicts can vote after their terms end.
An additional 33 states deny the right to vote to ex-convicts on parole, and 48 states place various restrictions on felon voting. Only Maine and Vermont have no restrictions.