As we approach what will perhaps be the most important election of our lifetimes, this country is also witnessing a mass reckoning with the United States’ long history of white supremacy and its continued legacy. Each day, the calls for abolishing the racist systems that have plagued this country since its very founding are growing stronger and stronger.
But while our voices in the streets are getting louder, our mass incarceration system continues to silence the voices and communities most impacted by it. Disenfranchisement laws today prevent six million people with a felony record from participating in their most fundamental right as democratic citizens: Voting.
Take what is happening currently in Florida for instance. This is a state that restored voting rights in 2018 for up to 1.4 million people that have had felonies and had completed their sentences. And now with the presidential election two weeks away, many of those individuals remain disenfranchised due to a court order requiring all legal fees to be paid prior to voting rights being restored. This has the potential to block thousands from their right to cast their ballots.
We cannot dismantle racism with finality unless we confront and eliminate it in all of its forms. The disenfranchisement of people with felony records is the Jim Crow era’s lasting legacy at the ballot box playing itself out in modern day. We must remove these racially-biased obstacles and ensure that all returning citizens are able to exercise their right to vote.
Make no mistake, all laws to disenfranchise people with felony records are racist. It is voter suppression plain and simple. Every vote deserves to be respected and counted, and these laws were designed to intentionally limit the political power of Black people and have done so for more than a century.
In the years following the Civil War as Black men gained voting rights, states began to rapidly expand disenfranchisement laws for people with felony records. Particularly in the South, states enacted targeted laws toward offenses that were believed to be committed more frequently by Black people, such as burglary, theft and arson.
They gave us our freedom on paper, but created other means to lock us up and bar us from democracy and take away our most fundamental rights. We are standing up and giving voice to this issue because we have seen how this injustice has been allowed to continue.
In the 2016 election, according to the Sentencing Project more than 6 million Americans were prohibited from voting due to a felony conviction. That included more than 20 percent of all potential Black voters in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia at the time.
Living as a Black person in the U.S. means living with a mark that says we were born guilty. We are more likely to be aggressively policed and prosecuted. We are disproportionately incarcerated and subjected to harsher sentences. And ultimately, we are more likely to be stripped of our right to vote due to a felony record.
Given this racist history and the continued disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black voters through this system, we are calling for an end to these laws. Every citizen should have the right to vote, no matter the circumstance.
There is a ton of misinformation about if and when people with felony records can vote, and as a result, disenfranchisement continues in the very communities that need the power of their vote the most. We have seen misinformation used as a tool to continue to suppress the vote of people of color. This also perpetuates the racist talking point that those who have been incarcerated do not deserve the right to vote. They are scared of our collective power, so they actively campaign on falsehoods to try to keep us silent.
This moment calls for the dismantling of a racist system in all of its forms. That means we must eliminate all disenfranchisement laws, and go even further to educate the public on voting rights of people with felony records.
It will be a long hard fight, but the very first step is ensuring that all people, regardless of criminal record, are empowered with the most basic right a democracy allows its citizens: a clear path to the ballot box and the respect of our votes.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. is the President & Founder of Hip Hop Caucus, a minister, community activist, U.S. Air Force veteran. Dr. Yusef Salaam was just 15 years old when his life was upended after being wrongly convicted with four other boys in the “Central Park jogger” case. In 2002, after the young men spent years of their lives behind bars, their sentences were overturned and they are now known as the Exonerated Five.