The Missing Black Voters

Unaccounted in the Census Bureau estimates are the 5.8 million adults who are ineligible to vote due to a current or previous felony conviction.
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Co-authored by Christopher Uggen

A new Census Bureau report highlights a significant milestone in electoral participation, finding that in the 2012 election African Americans voted at a higher rate than whites for the first time. The two point black margin of 66 percent vs. 64 percent represents a sharp shift from the nearly 8 point white margin in 1996. While this shift in turnout is intriguing, it actually downplays the scale of change.

Unaccounted in the Census Bureau estimates are the 5.8 million adults who are ineligible to vote due to a current or previous felony conviction. All but two states (Maine and Vermont) take away the right to vote for a period of time after a felony conviction. In 48 states, prisoners are ineligible to vote, in 35 of these states persons also cannot vote on probation and/or parole, and in 12 states citizens may lose their voting rights even after they have completed their sentence.

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system translate into much higher rates of disenfranchisement for African Americans relative to other groups. Factoring these uncounted lost voters in to the black population produces a turnout figure up to 72 percent of the eligible adult population. The high disenfranchisement rate of black males in particular helps to explain as well the nearly nine point gender gap in black voting, considerably higher than for other groups.

While many have attributed growing black turnout to Barack Obama's presence on the ballot in 2008 and 2012, in fact black voter turnout has been rising steadily over the past five election cycles, and is now nearly 25 percent higher than in 1996. Clearly, some combination of voter registration campaigns or heightened interest in national elections has motivated increasing numbers of African Americans to get to the polls. But the record number of disenfranchised citizens means that the politics of felony disenfranchisement will increasingly determine the composition of the electorate in coming years.

Currently, 2.2 million African Americans are disqualified from voting due to such restrictions. These figures are shockingly high in the most restrictive states of Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, where one in five black adults is barred from voting. Notably, nearly three-quarters of this group is not incarcerated, but rather living in the community either under probation or parole supervision, or having already served their entire sentence. These men and women are expected to earn a living, pay taxes, and support their families, yet when it comes to electoral participation they are treated as second-class citizens. This hardly seems like a smart strategy for promoting integration into society.

Troubling as these figures are, the pace of policy reform is quickening. Since 1997, 23 states have enacted reforms to their disenfranchisement policies. Some of these have been relatively modest, such as requiring notification regarding voting status, but many resulted in a significant reduction in the numbers of disenfranchised citizens. In Delaware, Maryland and New Mexico, for example, legislators removed former lifetime bans on voting for people with felony convictions. Connecticut expanded voting rights to persons on probation, and Rhode Island to those on either probation or parole. Notably, the latter came about through a ballot issue that achieved majority support from the voting public.

Policy change has not uniformly expanded the electorate, though. In 2011, newly-elected governors in Florida and Iowa reversed the policies of their immediate predecessors (one a Democrat and one a Republican) that had greatly eased the rights restoration process after completion of sentence. Applicants in those states now must go through an often lengthy process to have their cases approved on an individual basis. In contrast, Virginia Governor McDonnell has eased the restoration process in recent years, though he has been unsuccessful in gaining legislative support for more comprehensive reform.

Continued reform would clearly result in increased numbers of African Americans regaining their voting rights, a function of their disproportionate numbers in the justice system. But racial justice is hardly the only reason to support such change. First is the goal of expanding democracy. Our history is framed by the expansion of voting rights from an initially restricted group of wealthy, white male property holders to women, African Americans, and poor people. Being convicted of a crime has consequences, of course, that may involve restrictions on liberty in prison or under community supervision. But we should be very wary of conflating the legitimate goals of punishment with the loss of fundamental rights of citizenship.

Marc Mauer is the Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. Christopher Uggen is Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

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