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Are We Really A Democracy, If Not All Voices Are Heard?

By Talyce Murray and Candace Milner

When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it included provisions to eliminate literacy tests and enforced the 15th Amendment at the federal level. This was seen as the final act needed so everyone in our nation to have access to their fundamental right, the right to vote. However, the remnants of Jim Crow-era laws still impact  4.6 million Americans. Disenfranchisement is the restriction of suffrage of a person or group of people, or a practice that has the effect of preventing a person from exercising the right to vote. Essentially, the systematic removal of a group of people from the voting population.  

Before we continue, let’s put that 4.6 million number into perspective.  

In each of these instances, disenfranchised voters could have changed the results of the race. States control the logistics of voting, so every state has the right to create different laws dictating who is eligible to vote. Currently, ten states prohibit anyone with a felony conviction from voting– regardless of whether they have completed their sentence for said conviction. In a number of these states, the crimes that would result in a lifelong voting ban do not correspond with what is considered to be the worst crimes. Rather they are a collection of violations that are traditionally held by Black Americans, those of lower income, and other marginalized communities. For example, shockingly,  in Alabama, petty theft would result in permanent loss of voting rights, while attempted murder does not.  

An additional 14 states prohibit people from voting until they “complete their sentence”. This includes finishing probation and paying fines. Paying fines can be incredibly burdensome for returning citizens who are denied access to gainful employment and have trouble making ends meet while trying to reintegrate into society. The variation of state policies on this topic is disenfranchising a huge number of Americans and undermining the integrity of our elections.

How did we get Here?

Attacking voting rights has been a long-held tool for conservatives to keep power. While we no longer have poll tax or literacy tests, Black and Brown voters are still being squarely targeted for voter disenfranchisement. Laws prohibiting people with felonies from voting seem color blind on their face, however, they are intentionally racist policies. Systemic racism contributes to the over-policing and over-incarceration of Black and Brown people across the country. A legal system that is expensive and confusing to navigate often leaves these people with sub-standard representation and incentives to accept harsh plea deals or fine heavy sentences. Southern States with Jim Crow histories are still relying on moral turpitude laws and the Shelby v. Holder decision of 2013 gutted a key tool used to ensure state voting laws do not violate the VRA.

The numbers show us that these laws significantly impact the turnout of Black and Hispanic voters across the country.  At least 506,000 Latinx Americans or 1.7 percent of the voting eligible population are disenfranchised. In eight states over  one in 10 African American adults are disenfranchised – Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia. Most of those who are disenfranchised, are no longer incarcerated. In fact, 3.5 million people who no longer have the right to vote due to previous convictions, live in their communities. Racial and ethnic inequities in the criminal justice system play a role in this; 5.3% of African Americans are disenfranchised while only 1.5 percent of the adult non-African American population

Furthermore, disenfranchisement has generational impacts. Studies show that children learn their civic engagement habits from their parents. When a generation of parents is blocked from voting, their children do not access pivotal experiences like accompanying a parent to the polls that increase their chances of voting as an adult. In turn, the current disenfranchisement of adults results in diminished future voter turnout for their children.

Year Ahead 

The spirit and the goal of American democracy is for everyone to experience representative government because they all have access to the ballot. Our system is predicated on the belief that everyone’s voice is valued and can impact the world around them for the better. Unfortunately, we as a nation have yet to achieve this reality as we exchanged anti-suffrage movements for mass incarceration.  

Returned citizens are citizens in the full sense of the word. They pay taxes, own homes, take care of their families, and must register for the selective service. They contribute to our American way of life, just like everyone else. If one’s criminal history does not prevent them from financially contributing to national programs or serving our nation, it should not prevent them from having representation.  

Getting engaged in 2024 

The only way we will be able to ensure that those incarcerated and those who have returned home are treated equally within our democracy, is if you use the power of your vote to restore theirs. 2024 presents the perfect opportunity for you to advocate, as every state will be having an election. Meaning every state has a chance to head in a more just direction. So take action! Here are some ways to do just that:

  1. Send an email, make a call, or visit your state level officials (House Rep, State Senate, Governor), and tell them that this is an issue that is important to you and your community, and you hope to see action this year.
  2. Attend and share events hosted by criminal justice and restoration rights organizations. This gives you an opportunity to hear from those impacted by disenfranchisement and how it affects every aspect of their lives.
  3. Vote! Organize! Be Seen! Voting for advocates of criminal justice reform and those who believe in restoration means that full suffrage could be a reality sooner rather than later. As much as we need advocates, we also need champions in the state legislature who are ready to move the issue forward.