“This plan…will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years, so that in no single county…will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.” This is how Delegate Carter Glass described his plan to thwart Black political participation through felony disenfranchisement and other sinister tactics at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902.
More than 100 years later, felony disenfranchisement — the practice of denying formerly incarcerated citizens the right to vote — remains on the books as an enduring nod to the Jim Crow era and a stain on our democracy.
Rooted in the nation’s most impertinent aspects of race relations, the policy was developed to circumvent the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which provided newly freed slaves with a path to the ballot box. By tailoring the disenfranchisement to apply to petty offenses typically attributed to freedmen such as larceny and miscegenation while exempting those offenses believed to be committed by white men most often, such as murder, states were able to prevent the accrual of political power in the Black community.
In the South, where freedmen had the greatest success in harnessing the power of the vote, felony disenfranchisement reached beyond the incarcerated to include individuals who were no longer detained. Florida, for example, institutionalized a plan in 1868 to prevent what one legislator called “a negro legislature.” This plan included a permanent voting ban for people with felony convictions.
Despite its history, proponents of felony disenfranchisement claim it is racially neutral and a sound response to citizens who break social contract. In so doing they have kept it alive to varying degrees in 48 states and the District of Columbia.
For instance, exceeding all penalties imposed by judge and jury, 10 states subject individuals who have served time on a felony conviction to a waiting period before their voting rights can be restored. The waiting period begins upon release and is not shortened by successful post-release supervision or exemplary conduct. Rather, they bind individuals to their former offense for an additional two to seven years.
And in four states — Florida, Virginia, Kentucky, and Iowa — individuals convicted of a felony are automatically stripped of their right to vote for life. To be considered for restoration of rights in these states, individuals must first submit a formal application accompanied by the specified court records. Where courts have yet to computerize all their records or where the conviction took place long ago, the required supporting documents may not be readily available. But even a complete application can be denied.
The combined impact of these approaches has pushed 5.3 million people into the margins of democracy of which an estimated four million are no longer incarcerated and more than two million are African-American.
Felony disenfranchisement runs afoul of all of this nation’s progress towards equality and justice. The practice erects insidious barriers to voting and forces a disconnect between millions of people who are rightly expected to pursue responsible citizenship and the society into which they are expected to reintegrate. It also produces large pockets of people for who, despite remaining within the four corners of good citizenship — such as by working, opening businesses, paying taxes, raising family — cannot model responsible civic participation for their children come Election Day. Setting that example however is an important first step if we are to ensure future generations remain engaged.
As a society we must move beyond the practice of felony disenfranchisement if we are to shed the legacy of Delegate Glass and his plan to suppress diversity in our democracy.
Jotaka Eaddy in the special assistant to the president and CEO and senior director of the NAACP’s Voting Rights Initiative. Dennis Gaddy is the executive director of the Community Success Initiative.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)