Ex-Convicts and Civil Death

Ex-Convicts and Civil Death

Imagine a corporate executive who’s been convicted of embezzlement. He serves his sentence and some years later, having paid his debt to society, leaves prison a free man. Now he’s an ex-convict, in fact, an ex-felon. Should we allow him to vote? Or has he forfeited his right to participate in American democracy?

Depending on where he lives, he may never vote again. Thirteen states bar ex-felons—permanently—from voting. Thirty-two states disenfranchise them while on parole, twenty-nine while on probation.

Few of us realize that ex-felons so commonly lose their right to vote. Nor are we aware that any felony can trigger what some have called “civil death.” If, for example, a first-time offender pleads guilty to a single drug sale and is placed on probation, he or she can be permanently barred from voting. As Andrew Shapiro, an attorney, notes, “ An eighteen-year-old first-time offender who trades a guilty plea for a non-prison sentence may unwittingly sacrifice forever his right to vote.”

The people most affected by these laws, as you might suspect, are not corporate executives. They are disproportionately black men. Thirteen percent of African-American men—1.4 million people—are permanently disenfranchised because they are in prison, on parole or probation, or are ex-felons.

The impact of such widespread disenfranchisement on our elections is staggering. Florida, for example, denies the vote to ex-felons who have fully served their sentence. According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, Florida law prevented more than four hundred thousand ex-felons from voting in the November election. Among African-Americans, the impact was dramatic. Approximately one-third of Florida’s black men—some two hundred thousand residents—were legally prohibited from casting a vote. Human Rights Watch concludes: “Assuming the voting pattern of black ex-felons would have been similar to the vote by black residents in Florida generally, the inability of these ex-offenders to vote had a significant impact on the number voting for Vice President Gore.”

In other words, absent these disenfranchisement laws, Gore would now be president.

This nation began with a stingy view of who was virtuous enough to cast a vote in elections. In fact, the framers limited this right to free white men who owned property. But ever since, suffrage has been extended to those who were initially excluded: people without property, women, African-Americans, and people who are not literate.

The one group still excluded is convicted felons. In part, this is a legacy of the South’s successful post-Reconstruction effort to prevent freed slaves from voting. Between l890 and 1910, southern states crafted their criminal disenfranchisement laws, along with other voting qualifications, with the goal of preventing African-Americans from voting. In 1901, for example, Alabama lawmakers inserted a provision in the state consti...

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