Attorney General Eric Holder this week offered welcome support for ending the practice of felony disenfranchisement. Arguing that “permanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system,” Attorney General Holder called for “clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.”
While the degree of felony disenfranchisement varies by state, eleven states permanently disenfranchise at least some formerly incarcerated persons unless the state’s government approves the restoration of voting rights on an individual basis. Three of those states – Iowa, Florida and Kentucky – permanently disenfranchise all formerly incarcerated persons with felony convictions absent individual rights restoration. An additional 24 deny the right to vote to those who have been released from prison but remain on parole, and 20 of these states disenfranchise those on probation as well.
As a result, approximately 5.8 million Americans are prohibited from voting as a result of felony disenfranchisement laws. These laws have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, with nearly one in 13 African-American adults barred from voting, including one in eight African-American men nationwide and one in five African-Americans in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia.
These disparate impacts are not only due to the massive racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system. Rather, many such laws were passed in the aftermath of Reconstruction as a means of denying the franchise to African-Americans. Eleven states passed felony disenfranchisement laws for the first time, or significantly expanded existing laws, in the decade after the Civil War, and states with larger proportions of nonwhites in their prison populations have been more likely to pass such laws. Indeed, in 1985, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a felony disenfranchisement provision in Alabama’s state constitution in Hunter v. Underwood, finding that the provision, although neutral on its face, was enacted with discriminatory intent. As the Court noted, “the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901 [when the measure was passed] was part of a movement that swept the post-Reconstruction South to disenfranchise blacks” and the president of that convention stated that its goal was “to establish white supremacy in this State.”