Breaking the Chains Linking Felon Disenfranchisement and Racism

“Cause there’s a last time for everything.”

That’s a bit of the chorus of a Brad Paisley song from a few years back.

Sometimes that change is abrupt and painful. Think about the last time you did something that you know you can never do again.

Maybe you’re thinking of the last time you got to play catch with your childhood dog, how even though he was slow and old, he still had the same enthusiasm and so appreciated that “Good boy!” when he dropped the ball in your hand?

Or maybe you’re thinking of or the last time you went fishing with your grandpa, just the two of you on a lake so still and quiet you could hear your own heart beating. The first time, you were just a little boy; now, decades later, you’re the man, steering the boat and helping him bait his hooks because his hands are too shaky and his vision too poor.

Now, think back to the last time you voted.

Was it the 2018 midterms?

The 2016 presidential election?

Maybe you last voted for Barack Obama?

What if that were the LAST vote you ever cast?

Following the passage of Amendment 4 in Florida last year, just three states remain which permanently ban those convicted of a felony from EVER voting again.

In my current home of Kentucky, 312,000 people are permanently ineligible to vote. That is one of every 11 adults in the Commonwealth. Governor Matt Bevin was elected by a margin of just under 85,000 votes in 2015. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cruised to victory in 2014 but won in 2008 by just 106,000 votes.

Imagine if Mitch had been ousted from the Senate a decade ago, how different might life in America be today?

In 2005, Iowa Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack recognized the state’s growing problem. Iowa had approximately 3 million people in 2005. Of those, roughly 150,000 were disenfranchised due to past felonies, right around 5% of the state’s adult population. The national average is around 2.5%. But what jumped out at Vilsack was the mass disenfranchisement of African Americans in Iowa. Nationally, approximately 1 in 11 African American adults are ineligible to vote. In Iowa, that number was 1 in 4. Vilsack restored voting rights to felons who had completed the terms of their sentences.

In 2011, Republican Governor Terry Branstad ended the automatic restoration of voting rights and reinstated lifetime felony disenfranchisement.

Iowa is home to what is expected to be the nation’s most competitive Senate race in 2020 as Republican incumbent Joni Ernst defends her seat in a state that went for Al Gore in 2000, for Barack Obama twice, and which saw Democrats take 3 of 4 Congressional seats in 2018. In the last two presidential elections, the winner of Iowa (Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016) garnered 51% of the vote.

Those disenfranchised voters in Iowa could determine the winner of the 2020 Senate race, which could determine the balance of the United States Senate, which could determine the make-up of the Supreme Court for decades.

This is the point at which many Republicans (and almost ALL Trump supporters) start interjecting that “maybe if black people did not commit crimes, they would not lose the right to vote?”

Umm…wrong answer. But more on that later.

The problem begins…well, how the hell do we even know where to start? I cannot even say with a straight face that a black man’s problems begin at birth because the National Institutes of Health reports that black women get a lower level of prenatal care than white women.

This puts a black child at a disadvantage to a white one before he is even born.

So, let’s skip ahead.

Let’s skip past the reality that a black boy is more likely than a white boy to be born into a family where the male head of household is in prison.

Let’s skip past the Head Start programs white kids get but black kids do not.

Let’s skip past the poor quality of schools in many urban neighborhoods.

Let’s skip past the reality that young black men graduate high school at a 17% lower rate than white men.

Let’s skip past the reality that black men are significantly less likely to be accepted to college, and when they are, are 20% less likely than whites to complete their degree at the first university they attend and 25% less likely than whites to complete a degree at all.

The focus here, although worthy of deeper discussion, is not the broad racial experience of black men in America.

The focus here is narrower, on how that college-aged black male goes from someone newly eligible to vote for the first time to a disenfranchised felon never eligible to vote again.

In my hometown of Philadelphia, around 56% of the police officers are white. The higher one goes though, the greater the disparity. For example, 82% of the captains are white. Just under 36% of Philadelphia residents are white.

And Philadelphia is not an outlier. For cities with populations over 1 million people, the average white percentage on the police force is 56%. The smaller the town, the whiter the force, peaking at an average of 88.3% for towns with populations below 2,500 residents.

Let’s look at a scenario:

Two young men are walking down a street in West Philadelphia. One is white. The other is black.

Both have a gram of cocaine in their pocket.

THAT is where the similarities end.

The white man has powder cocaine; the black man, crack.

Someone convicted of possessing crack cocaine, on average, is sentenced to a term 18 times longer than one for possessing powder cocaine.

By that standard, Mr. Powder gets 30 days in jail (likely a county or state facility) while Mr. Crack gets 18 months (likely in a federal penitentiary).

Before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the sentencing disparity was nearly 100 to 1.

Back then, Mr. Powder would have received 90 days while Mr. Crack would have faced 25 years. Yes, 25 YEARS.

And there are other factors at work.

Maybe it is fear? Maybe it is the attitude of the police? Maybe they even do resist more, because of those factors or others?

But a black man arrested for a misdemeanor drug offense is 84.5% MORE LIKELY to be charged with resisting arrest than a white suspect. The very act of resisting can be a felony even if the underlying charges were not, or even if the underlying charges are dropped.

Prosecutors are more likely to charge African Americans with specific charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences than whites. For example, the white man maybe gets charged with possession while the black man gets charged with possession with intent to distribute.

And not by a little are black men more likely to face the more serious charges.

By 75%.

In state after state, studies have also found that prosecutors were 2.5 times more likely to dismiss black jurors form a pool of candidates than white jurors.

Why does the racial make-up of a jury matter?

All white juries are 16% more likely to convince a black defendant than a white defendant.

Black people are 12 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of drug crimes by a jury than white people.


Black men who commit the same exact crimes as white men receive federal prison sentences that average 20 percent longer.

Judges (who have sentencing discretion since the 2005 Supreme Court case United States vs Booker) are less likely to revise recommended sentences downward for black offenders than for white ones.

When judges do use their discretion and reduce sentences for black offenders, they almost always do so by smaller amounts than they do for white offenders convicted of the exact same crime.

The Heritage Foundation believes that felons SHOULD be banned from voting, arguing that those not willing to follow the law should not have a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote.

They also argue that it is irrelevant that a disproportionate number of felons are black (and that African Americans vote disproportionately for Democrats) as a Florida appeals court ruled back in 2005 that Florida’s felon disenfranchisement was not racially motivated.

Not racially motivated?

Remember at the beginning when I said there were three states which still permanently disenfranchise felons?

We discussed Kentucky. And Iowa. The third? Virginia.

For not being racially motivated, it seems odd that Virginia’s ban on felons participating in elections was passed in the same piece of 1902 legislation that imposed poll taxes and required literacy tests, two other primary methods southern states used to limit non-white voting.

A Virginia state senator at the time advocated for the legislation, stressing that its passage would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor” in the state.

The lifetime prohibition of felons from voting IS racially motivated.

Worse, it has led to nearly a century of legislation and sentencing guidelines specifically designed to increase the number of African-American felons.

This should not be a political issue. And despite the earlier examples of Kentucky’s past and Iowa’s future elections, restoring voting rights to felons in those states would likely have very little impact on election outcomes.

If every disenfranchised felon in Virginia had voted in 2016, they would have added less than 5% to the vote totals statewide. Virginia has roughly 8.5 million people. Fewer than 4 million of them voted in 2016. And felons (in the states they are permitted to vote) have far lower voter registration and voter turnout rates than the general public.

The issue should not be margin of victory in elections, though, even if the changes in voting status would change outcomes.

The issue should be right/wrong, fair/unfair, based on WHY felons were disenfranchised in the first place and WHY so many African-Americans are convicted felons.

Here’s hoping one of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates picks up this mantle and demands change!

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