Presidential Election Year? Not For Millions of Ex-Felons

Making a choice, taking a vote.
Making a choice, taking a vote.

Incoming Kentucky Governor, Matt Bevin, set to work quickly. Through a series of executive orders, Bevin ensured that thousands of poor and minority individuals would not vote this year or potentially ever. Bevin reversed the work of his predecessor, former Governor Steven L. Beshear, who sought to ensure that Kentucky would no longer be one of only three states to permanently ban felons from voting. Bevin's executive orders continue the long and repressive system of disenfranchising and alienating ex-felons.

Almost six million Americans will not have the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to vote because they have been convicted of a felony. Ex-felons are released back into society with the expectation that they will lead full, law-abiding lives. However, denying felons fundamental freedoms that all other Americans enjoy make them second-class citizens. Out of the six million felons who have lost the right to vote, two-thirds have already completed their prison time. However, the punishment continues.

This injustice is further amplified by the enormous racial and socio-economic disparity amongst convicted felons. Minorities are locked up at higher rates than their white peers and therefore, disproportionally banned from voting. According to the Sentencing Project, "[f]elony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in democratic life which is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in one of every thirteen African Americans unable to vote." This rate is fives times that of non-blacks.

While more minorities are disenfranchised from voting now more than ever before, the history of preventing felons from voting is also rooted in racist policies. After the Civil War, the push to ban felons from voting was prevalent in the South where the vast majority of felons were African American. These policies prevented African Americans from voting, but were shrouded under the guise of disenfranchising felons. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made strides in alleviating roadblocks that prevented African Americans from voting, disenfranchising felons continued.

Political motivation could also be a factor in preventing ex-felons from voting. Research suggests that Democrats benefit from ex-felon voter turnout with one study finding 61 per cent of ex-felons to be Democrats compared to nine percent who identified as Republican. However, it is unlikely that allowing felons to vote would be a windfall for Democrats, as it is estimated only 25 per cent of eligible ex-felons end up voting.

There is no practical effect in preventing felons from voting. It only seeks to alienate and disenfranchise a group of individuals already fighting the social stigma of serving time in prison. The inability to vote is just one of the myriad of issues formerly-incarcerated individuals face. Public benefits, jobs and housing are often out of reach for those who have had contact with the criminal justice system.

Governor Bevins noted that, "America is the land of second chances." However, for Governor Bevins, those second chances do not extend to those who may need them most.