By Deborah J. Vagins & Erika Wood. Vagins is Legislative Counsel for the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union; Wood is Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
In our recent Issue Brief for the American Constitution Society, The Democracy Restoration Act: Addressing a Centuries-Old Injustice, we examine an ongoing and deeply problematic barrier to the fundamental right to vote for millions of Americans. Currently, 5.3 million American citizens are denied this right because of a criminal conviction in their past. Nearly 4 million of those who are disfranchised are out of prison, working, paying taxes, and raising families, yet they are without a political voice.
With their roots in the Jim Crow era, many of these laws were originally enacted as a way to prevent African Americans from exercising their newly-won rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Their intended effects continue today. While 2.5% of the total U.S. voting age population is currently disfranchised, over 13% of African-American men are denied the right to vote on account of past criminal convictions -- this rate is seven times the national average.
Although in the past decade there have been significant reforms of these laws in the states, there is a compelling need for a federal standard. Some states disfranchise persons on parole or probation while others permanently disfranchise some or all who have completed their sentences. Several states even deny voting rights to persons who have incurred legal financial obligations or have only been convicted of misdemeanors.