This article is part of a Huffington Post series examining the state of Black America. To read more, click here.
By most standards, Desmond Meade is an overachiever. The 46-year-old is a fourth-year law student at Florida International University. He made the 2013 dean’s list. And he’s about to start working as a regional coordinator for a national anti-violence organization.
But, barring some unforeseen policy change, he won’t ever get the chance to practice law in his state. And this promising, African-American law student isn't allowed to vote.
Nearly two decades ago, after a struggle with drugs and alcohol led to a series of run-ins with the law, Meade served three years in prison. In 2005, he checked himself into a substance abuse program and stopped using drugs. Yet, because of a policy adopted by Florida Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, he is prohibited not only from voting, but also from serving on a jury and becoming a member of the Florida bar.
“I was in prison because I had an addiction to drugs and alcohol," he said. "Should I be ostracized for the rest of my life because I fell victim to the grip of addiction? No. Should I pay the price for any crimes I committed? Yes, I should pay the price. But once I serve my time, I'm still an American."
It’s a story told time and again in this country, even in 2013: A nonviolent offense brands someone a felon and strips them of their voting rights, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
More than a million of these disenfranchised Americans are black. Felony convictions restrict 13 percent of the country's black male population from voting, prompting critics to portray felon disenfranchisement as an heir to the voter-suppression tactics of the Jim Crow era. Back then, black people eager to cast their ballots encountered poll taxes, literacy tests and violence. Today, the mechanisms of disenfranchisement may be more sophisticated, but they can be just as oppressive, civil rights leaders say.
More than 30 states have passed laws in recent years requiring voters to display photo identification, which minorities and low-income Americans disproportionately lack. Just this week, North Carolina's Republican-dominated Senate approved a bill that would eliminate same-day voter registration, cut early voting by a week and require all voters to show specific forms of state-issued ID at the polls.
Then there’s redistricting, the political maneuver by which elected officials redraw the boundaries of representation, often along partisan lines. Critics argue that this practice has diminished the electoral clout of those minorities who do vote. In North Carolina, the Republican majority that passed the new voting laws benefited from a 2011 redistricting scheme that placed more than a quarter of the state's black voters in newly divided precincts and transformed the Republicans' 7-6 congressional district edge into a steep 9-4 advantage.
Today's attempts to erode the voting power of minorities amount to "the same face with a different mask," said John Lewis, the long-serving Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, at a recent Senate hearing on the future of voting rights in America.
The modern barriers to civic participation are not confined to the South. Voter ID laws have taken root in northern battleground states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, and Iowa has one of the most restrictive felon disenfranchisement policies on the books. (Along with Florida and Kentucky, the state denies the ballot to nearly everyone who has ever been convicted of a felony, including many non-violent drug offenders.)
Still, few civil rights supporters see eye to eye with the five U.S. Supreme Court justices who ruled in June's landmark case on the Voting Rights Act that the election policies of districts with troubling histories of discrimination no longer warrant special scrutiny from the federal government.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg listed eight examples of race-based discrimination in the South's recent history, including one in Waller County, Texas, where officials attempted to reduce early-voting hours at polling places near a historically black college.
"Hubris is a fit word for today's demolition of the VRA," she wrote.
Immediately after the ruling, officials in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas resurrected plans to pass laws that the federal government had previously deemed unconstitutional and discriminatory.
With fewer people in power to represent minorities and other low-income groups, lawmakers are less likely to invest in public schools or poverty programs, civil-rights advocates say. They’re less likely to support policies that help workers, like raising the minimum wage or requiring companies to offer paid sick leave to their employees. And they’re more likely to pass the same kinds of voting restrictions that arguably helped many of them gain power in the first place.
No ethnicity bears the brunt of these decisions more than blacks.
"There's a saying: When America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia," said the Rev. Dr. William Barber, the head of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP and a progressive leader who helped spawn a local protest movement aimed at the state’s new voting laws and other conservative policies.
"Whatever pain Americans feel when the franchise of voting is suppressed," he said. "African-Americans feel it even more, in the kinds of public policy that are the result of not having a broader and deeper electorate."
It's hard to know exactly how many people have already been disenfranchised by voting laws across the country. Last week, in a trial over Pennsylvania's voter ID law, a statistician testified that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians lacked the identification documents needed to cast a ballot. Some observers place the national number in the millions; others say those figures are inflated.
Less disputed is the size of the disenfranchised felon population. "You're really locking out five or six million poor people from the electoral process," said Christopher Uggen, one of the authors of "Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy." "Their votes don't count and the major parties don't have to attend to their preferences."
Not everyone sees shades of Jim Crow in today's voting laws and criminal justice policies. Hans von Spakovsky, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and one of the most prominent boosters of voter ID laws, dismissed the comparison as "ridiculous."
A former election official from Alabama, von Spakovsky lauds voter ID legislation as "just one of a number of steps that we should take to protect the integrity of the election." Although his opponents contend that there's little evidence of pervasive voter fraud at the polls, von Spakovsky insists that his motivations are practical, not political.
"There might be some people with a bad motive," but in general, he said, the conservative proponents of these laws are "truly concerned" about fraud.
In recent years, bipartisan efforts to end felon disenfranchisement have gained traction in several states. In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell has begun restoring voting rights to certain nonviolent ex-offenders who've served out their sentences. And the decriminalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012 signaled the possibility of a broader change in the drug laws that have incarcerated so many blacks.
In mid-July, both houses of Congress held hearings on the future of the Voting Rights Act. Still, it's hard to imagine that one of the most polarized Congress in modern times will reach an agreement anytime soon. Certainly, von Spakovsky's presence as a witness at the House hearing did not strike many civil-rights advocates as a promising sign.
To Barber, the recent voting laws amount to an assault not just on blacks but on democracy itself. But as he points out, even the hardships of the Jim Crow era eventually gave way to progressive reforms.
Today's right-wing leaders are "trying to do everything they can to slow down a future they can't stop," he says. "They know that the demographics have shifted. They no longer control the South. They no longer control the nation. They can put a roadblock up and do some harsh things right now, but I have hope that ultimately the spirit of reconstruction and justice is going to win."