Due to felony disenfranchisement laws, an estimated 6.1 million United States citizens cannot exercise their right to vote, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonpartisan criminal justice advocacy organization.
Its recent report, “6 Million Lost Voters,” shows Mississippi, one of only 12 states enforcing a lifetime felon voting ban, claiming “the second highest felon disenfranchisement rate in the country,” with 9.6 percent of the voting-age state population, or an estimated 218,181 Mississippians, disenfranchised. As with most disenfranchising practices, the felon-voting ban disproportionately affects African-American citizens: “Almost 16 [percent] (15.9 [percent]) of the state’s black voting age population is disenfranchised.”
Defenders of disenfranchisement, such as Gov. Phil Bryant, cite the policy as the “price to pay for violating the laws of the state of Mississippi.”
Conservative critics contend disqualifying crimes — including forging a check over $100, shoplifting goods over $500, bigamy and timber larceny — seem arbitrary.
“We have pedophiles and drug dealers still voting, and I’ve got somebody who steals timber that’s disenfranchised,” Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said.
Yet our state felony disenfranchisement laws are neither reasonable nor random. Rather, disenfranchising felons is a legacy of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, written and ratified as an attack against black power.
Those drafting the document did not equivocate. During his opening address, Solomon S. Calhoun, president of the 1890 Constitutional Convention, said, “Let us tell the truth if it bursts the bottom of the Universe. We came here to exclude the negro. Nothing short of this will answer.”
Future state governor and U.S. Sen. James K. Vardaman agreed: “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. Mississippi’s constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics.”
The 1890 Constitution codified many discriminatory, disenfranchising practices: literacy tests, poll taxes — and felony disenfranchisement. Convention delegates penalized a perceived black propensity for crime, with the 1896 Mississippi Supreme Court endorsing new felony disenfranchisement laws as “discriminat(ing) against (the negro race’s) characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.”
Felony disenfranchisement achieved its aims, then and now. African-Americans constitute approximately 60 percent of an estimated 50,000 Mississippians disenfranchised due to felony convictions since 1994 (almost 38 percent of the state population is black).
These laws weaken black political action and compromise our electoral integrity: Studies suggest felony disenfranchisement influences presidential and senatorial election outcomes, restricts fair legislative representation and reduces non-felon voter participation among African-American communities.
Disregard its racist roots and repercussions, and felony disenfranchisement is still poor policy.
Voting is a communal civic act. It grants citizen-ownership over government and promotes community engagement. No right — and voting is a right, not some state-sanctioned privilege — is more fundamental to the success or failure of the American experiment.
Disenfranchisement is a political death sentence. Like corporal punishment, it is a cruel and unusual punishment, an attack against our collective civil liberty and individual political sovereignty. It stigmatizes citizens with felonies as second-class citizens, discourages civic engagement and restricts post-carceral rehabilitation.
As a consequence, felony disenfranchisement correlates with increased crime. A Minnesota study shows voters “were significantly less likely than non-voters to be rearrested from 1997 to 2000,” and a comparison between Oregon voting records and crime reports reveals “probationers and parolees who vote in Oregon have significantly lower recidivism rates than those who do not vote.”
An analysis of a 1994 Department of Justice report on recidivism determined disenfranchised ex-felons were almost 10 percent more likely to be rearrested than enfranchised ex-felons. And a 2011 state-commissioned study by the Florida Parole Commission found restoring voting rights to ex-felons reduced their recidivism rates “by almost two-thirds.”
As policy and principle, felony disenfranchisement fails our citizens, our state and our republic. Until all citizens can vote, our electoral process only feigns democracy — to quote the greatest Mississippian, Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Free the ballot box and free Mississippi.
Allen Coon is a senior public policy leadership and African-American studies double major from Petal.