On Election Day it will not matter to some 4.7 million Americans whether they are Republicans, Democrats, independents or whether they have an opinion on anything at all. Under various state laws, they are barred from voting because they have felony records. This includes not just prison inmates (48 states), parolees (33 states) and probationers (29 states) but also a large number of people -- one third of the disenfranchised in all -- who are off parole and "free." Minorities are hit particularly hard by these state laws: They deny 13 percent of African American men the vote.
Incarceration in America is up 600 percent since 1974, and the absence of this fast-growing shadow population has been altering the nation's politics.
The 14th Amendment permits states to deny the vote "for participation in rebellion, or other crime." And it can be argued that prisoners should not vote; after all, the purpose of prison is to deny freedom. But with ex-cons, the argument shifts.
Some say those who break the law lack the trustworthiness to make it. Todd Gaziano of the Heritage Foundation argues that felons might form some kind of "anti-law-enforcement bloc" and elect bad officials. But last year Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors stated a bald truth: "As frank as I can be," he said, "we're opposed to [restoring voting rights] because felons don't tend to vote Republican." He is right: People with low incomes, low education or minority status -- all benchmarks of convict populations -- vote Democratic 65 to 90 percent of the time.
Another bald fact: Many disenfranchisement laws trace to the mid-1800s, when they were crafted to bar blacks with even minor criminal records from polls. Today this poisonous legal lineage tells not only in the South, which retains the most repressive statutes, but in states such as New York, where ex-parolees theoretically get their rights back but in reality encounter local election officials who demand discharge papers that don't exist, give misleading information and find other reasons to turn them away. A class-action lawsuit in New York charges that this system bars so many voters in high-crime neighborhoods that the districts effectively have lost their voice. In Florida, where many felons are barred forever unless the governor personally decides otherwise, 8 percent of adults cannot vote -- including one in four black men.
These numbers may matter only in close elections -- but those do happen. According to one convincing study done at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, George W. Bush would have lost Florida by 80,000 votes in 2000 had ex-felons been allowed to vote -- even assuming most of would not have bothered to vote and a third would have voted Republican. The same study finds that since 1978, seven Republican senators would have lost close elections -- meaning that if everyone were allowed to vote, Democrats would now probably control the Senate. But Democrats, too, have turned their backs on this population. They have failed to stand up for restoration of rights because they're afraid Republicans will reflexively play the "soft on crime" card.
To condemn millions to eternal political silence is to stab our democracy in the heart, and to provide cause for bitterness and alienation. Felons may face many other disabilities: They cannot sit on juries, serve as teachers, firefighters or -- often -- even barbers or plumbers. They cannot receive food stamps or live in public housing. Add to all this the knowledge that whatever they do, no matter how much they have changed, their voices will never be heard in the public arena.
Does this sound like a prescription for more crime? It certainly undermines a basic tenet of our system of justice: that the weight of punishment is tempered with the hope of rehabilitation. And it prevents us from having a real electorate. (That "anti-law enforcement bloc" notwithstanding, we've managed very nicely to elect plenty of criminals to office without any help from ex-felons).
Most people know this is wrong. Eighty percent responding to a July 2002 Harris poll said ex-felons should have their rights restored automatically; 60 percent would include current parolees, too.
Voting is not a privilege; it is the basic right that defines a citizen. Those denied it are, in effect, stateless -- people without a country. This is not a partisan issue, but one of basic human rights. People who have paid their debt to society should have their rights restored.
The writer is a journalist in New York.