A Quick History Lesson on Voter Disenfranchisement

May 22, 2017

“Being unable to vote is like being on the fringe of society [as] a citizen that doesn’t have an active participation in it. You are just there, observing. You have no opportunity to affect change.”

– Ken Shutle

The ability to participate in our political system, and in particular the power to cast a vote, is the cornerstone of our nation and what unites us as a democracy. When this power is lost, one loses the ability to shape policies and political agendas in their community. This is the case of Ken Shutle and more than 1.6 million other Floridians who are unable to exercise their right to vote due to past felony convictions.

The disenfranchisement of citizens with past felony convictions dates back to a period in which discriminatory policies were commonplace. Writer Vann Newkirk describes it as a vehicle of American punishment linked to the classical notion of a “civil death.” Extinguishing the civil rights that constituted one’s personhood, including suffrage, landownership, and the right to file lawsuits, was a form of capital punishment. The goal of the practice is to ostracize and create barriers for participation in civil society, in effect making it nearly impossible to be an active citizen.

The first occurrence of felony disenfranchisement appeared during the Reconstruction period after the passage of the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted black men the right to vote. Without barriers like poll taxes and literacy tests, legislators were worried about the influence blacks could have on the elections. In response, states like Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia adopted policies that targeted offenses committed most by blacks in an effort to disenfranchise them.

The number of Americans disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has increased drastically in recent decades as mass incarceration has increased. Some have attempted to attribute this to the rise of crime rates, but in fact, recent studies have shown changes in law and policy have caused led to mass incarceration. By extension, the number of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has grown from 1.17 million in 1976 to over 6.1 million today. We also know this issue is deeply rooted in race where Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites; as a result, the Sentencing Project estimates that 1 of every 13 black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised from the political system, a rate more than four times greater than among non-black Americans.

In states like Florida, which places a lifetime voting ban on people with felony convictions, we see the greatest number of citizens barred from the polls. By limiting one’s ability to participate in the political process, we allow politicians to overlook their grievances and concerns. Without the right to vote, Floridians with prior criminal background become marginalized and forgotten.

In the words of Indian activist Arundhati Roy, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Former felons are a constituency group that has been forcibly silenced and denied fundamental civil liberties because of false prejudices, structural discrimination embedded within the criminal justice system, and out of fear of their ability to swing the political pendulum in Florida and across the country. Just think: If former felons had the right to vote, what issues would they raise about the U.S. criminal justice and prison system?

The ability to vote is an essential component of democracy and a reflection of power and the sentiments of core constituencies. As a nation built on second chances, it is incumbent upon us to allow all Americans who have served their time and paid reparations to society an opportunity to become full citizens again. If we are to achieve a truly fair and inclusive democracy, we need to begin breaking down these discriminatory policies and structural barriers.