Conservatives and Black Voter Disenfranchisement

"I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
- Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, at a 1980 training session for Christian conservatives

America is at the dawn of a new political era, pregnant with opportunity and optimism. Control of Congress has shifted and the 2008 presidential election is beginning to take shape. Liberals are on the rise in many unlikely places around the nation and new hope has arisen that some of America's lingering problems will finally be addressed. Legislative victories, of course, come after electoral ones and while this is the dawn of a new era, old habits die hard. One of America's oldest habits is Black voter disenfranchisement and, as we move toward a critical election season in which the Black vote will be a deciding factor all over the country, now is the time to focus on this continued electoral assault. Too long ignored by policymakers, this issue lies at the heart of American democracy and leaves a gaping hole in our political existence. Given the closeness of recent presidential elections and prevailing public opinion, Republicans are seeking to win some elections not by expanding their support base but, rather, by constricting access to the ballot box. This key arrow in the conservative political quiver must be stopped.

Voter disenfranchisement laws date back to a larger culture of "civil death" that emerged from Europe and befell miscreants for centuries. Over time, prohibitions on the right to participate in court proceedings, passing on an estate to an heir, or enter into contracts, were all overturned. Voter disenfranchisement was the only remaining vestige of that era. From the application of voter disenfranchisement laws, many of which date back to the post-Reconstruction era to faulty, dysfunctional, or incompetent electoral administration, African Americans and other minorities around the country are having a difficult time voting and being certain that their votes are counted.

That conservatives see the Black vote as a sleeping giant in American politics is proven by the lengths to which they go to lock out of the system as many people as possible. The Republican Party has spent millions in support of purge programs and "electoral integrity" schemes with the only real purpose being to reduce the number of African Americans that vote. This money is spent because the party understands the arithmetic of Black political power and the disproportionate impact African Americans can have in deciding who wins presidential general election states such as Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. While many attribute the GOP's rise in the south to Democratic liberalism, no one should overlook the increasing numbers of Black voters that have been stricken from voter rolls throughout the region. It is no coincidence that the Republican rise in the south has occurred at about the same time that the number of Blacks officially disenfranchised has skyrocketed.

The increase in felony convictions over the last generation or so has proven to be an effective way to lock out African American voters. Between 1970 and 2000, the overall number of state and federal prisoners grew by over 600 percent, from fewer than 200,000 to nearly 1.4 million. Nearly five million Americans, two percent of the voting-age population, are prohibited from voting as a result of felony convictions. The laws that created these barriers are undemocratic and antithetical to American ideals, particularly in the case of those who have completed their sentences, parole, or both, and have thus completely "paid their debt to society."

Racism is the root of felon disenfranchisement laws. Conservatives created these laws in the post-Reconstruction era South in an effort keep African Americans out of the political process as they sought to "redeem" the South in the name of White supremacy. Over time, these laws spread nationwide and 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibited inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense; 36 states prohibit felons from voting while they are on parole; and 31 of these states exclude felony probationers as well. Three states deny the right to vote to all ex-offenders who have completed their sentences. As the GOP became the home of the conservative movement, Republicans all over the country have continually resisted efforts to overturn these scandalous, undemocratic laws. They often argue that these laws are an appropriate supplement to the incarceration process. The reality is that they understand the numbers which clearly indicate the GOP would have a much more difficult time winning elections around the country, particularly in the South.

These policies conflict with public opinion. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found in its 1999 study, "Racial Profiling and the Disenfranchisement of Ex-Felons", that 70 percent of Whites and 85 percent of African Americans opposed lifetime disenfranchisement. A 2001 Demos study, "Punishing at the Polls: The Case Against Disenfranchising Citizens With Felony Convictions", found that about 15 percent of respondents supported lifetime disenfranchisement of felons and a 2002 survey found that 80 percent believed that all ex-felons should have the right to vote.

The impact of these laws on African American political participation has been profound. According to the Sentencing Project, in its 2005 report "Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States", more than 1.4 million African American men, or 13% of Black men, are disenfranchised, a rate seven times the national average; in six states that deny the vote to ex-offenders, 25 percent of Black men are permanently disenfranchised. Given current incarceration rates, 30 percent of the next generation of Black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40% of Black men may permanently lose their right to vote. Ex-offenders who have completed their sentences comprise approximately 1.7 million disenfranchised people in the United States.

According to 2004 report by the People for the American Way/National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Suppression in America", Florida disenfranchised approximately 827,000 ex-felons for the 2000 presidential election. That number is all the more stark when one consider that estimates of felon turnout range from a low of 20.5 percent (for the 1974 congressional elections) to a high of 39 percent (for the 1992 presidential election), with an average estimated felon turnout of about 24 percent in non-presidential year Senate elections and about 35 percent in presidential election years. While well below general turnout rates, these estimates are enough to change electoral outcomes. Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen, authors of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy , argue that the outcome of the 2000 presidential election "would almost certainly have been reversed had voting rights been extended to any category of disenfranchised felons." They concluded that Democratic nominee Al Gore would have one the popular vote by more than one million votes. The disputed election in Florida reveals the impact felon disenfranchisement had on the 2000 contest. Given estimated rates of turnout (27.2 percent) and preference (68.9 percent) for Florida incarcerates, Gore would have carried the state by 80,000 votes and, thereby, the presidency.

The political implications of felon disenfranchisement on the result of the 2000 presidential election were not limited to Florida. In nine states -- Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin -- the number of disenfranchised felons exceeded the margin of victory. Given the high proportion of African Americans who are convicted felons, it is quite likely that Democrats would dominate America politics were it not for these laws.

These laws have definitive political implications for African Americans and the Republican Party. Criminology research tells us that those incarcerated in America's prisons tend to be economically poor and disproportionately minority -- in other words, likely Democrats. Disenfranchising voters, particularly in closely contested southern states, can remove critical masses of potential Democratic voters from election rolls, thereby giving a significant boost to Republican electoral chances. Given that African Americans are charged and convicted of crimes at disproportionately high rates and their concentration in southern states, this disenfranchisement gives Republicans an unearned advantage.

As a consequence of these political realities, Republicans have no political incentive to overturn these laws and have been the most vocal opponents to laws that would ease restrictions on felon participation in the electoral process. They benefit more than Democrats by the current disenfranchisement laws. Indeed, some Republican officials see politics in the efforts by Democrats to allow felons to have their voting privileges reinstated. According to one Maryland Republican Party official "I see things like that coming up so that a Democratic governor or whomever is really just trying to gain votes, votes that they know they could pretty well count on." This sort of short-sighted view of the citizenship flies in the face of all that America purports to represent. Those that are convicted of a felony haven't forfeited their citizenship, so why should they be precluded from voting? The answer virtually always comes down to raw politics. Rather than compete on their merits, conservatives want to reduce the number of voters likely to vote for their opponents. Felon disenfranchisement is a key cog in that strategy.

While the historical genesis of these kinds of laws can be found in the actions of anti-Reconstruction conservative Democrats, Republicans are benefiting from these laws and fight attempts to reverse the status quo on felon disenfranchisement. Contemporary Democrats have been slow to embrace the fundamental illegitimacy of these laws for fear of being charged as "soft on criminals." They have acted as the political equivalent of Sergeant Schultz in Hogan's Heroes, knowing nothing while doing less. This isn't about crime. It's about fairness and citizenship and representing to the world the very best of America. The time has now come for an organized, protracted, and dedicated effort to end these laws throughout the country. One can only hope that this new political era will challenge old habits and bring about real change.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote.