Should Felons Lose the Right to Vote?

The poor and minorities are disproportionately locked up—and as a result, disproportionately banned from the polls.
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After finishing a prison term for robbery, Richard is homeless, jobless, and voteless. (Daniel Weeks)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Richard is a felon, but he's not about to start assigning blame.

"I had a pretty decent childhood," is all he has to say about the rundown homes and apartments he moved between as a boy with his mother and grandparents and other assorted relatives in Montgomery. The fact that his mother, a nursing-home attendant, and grandmother, a maid, earned barely enough money to get by is irrelevant to him: One way or another, they got by. At least they both had jobs, which is more than he can say about his father, a veteran who lacked the wherewithal to be a dad.

How can poverty and "pretty decent childhood" coexist in Richard's mind? I want to know, as we sit down to a game of chess at the Montgomery Mission late one afternoon in October. I am there by choice, after all, and he with his "pretty decent childhood" is not. Three blocks to the west is Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the tidy red-brick building with crisp white trim where Martin Luther King began preaching in 1954, when he was not quite Richard's age, 28.

The mission has all the ambience of an old-time parish home (unlike most of the city-run shelters I visited on my travels) and is presided over by the peerless Momma Donna, a church lady whose irrepressible warmth and hospitality are wholly out of proportion with her dainty frame. You won't have to wait two minutes before she deposits a heaping plate of Southern comfort food in front of you.

If there's irony in Richard's answer, he doesn't let on. Intergenerational poverty is Richard's status quo, neither good nor bad. Growing up in the land of MLK, it's all he's ever known. The same goes for just about everyone else he encountered growing up in the hood. "That's how Montgomery people is," he says with a shrug, trading his pawn for position.

A generation after the Montgomery bus boycotts purged the city and state of legal segregation, Richard was still riding de facto segregated buses and attending de facto segregated schools right through to senior year—schools where the best imaginable outcome for a youth of his complexion (dreams of NFL greatness aside) was to land a steady job in the trades.

Richard came very close. He was one transformer box away from getting fully certified as an electrician, courtesy Job Corps, and on his way to a lucrative tradesman's practice earning 20 bucks an hour. But a fear of heights on the final test—climbing the telephone pole to "mess with the high-voltage transformer"—left him in the lurch. "I could do everything else but not that, so they failed me …. That wasn't part of the plan."

His telephone-pole descent was soon followed by a headlong dive into illicit living on the street. As a teen, he had occasionally been picked up by the police for petty offenses—jaywalking, wearing his pants low, turning the volume up high—but now Richard started running with the wrong crowd and putting his mortality to the test.

It takes a bit of mental maneuvering to imagine this soft-spoken youth, with his chess sophistication and melancholy aspect, packing guns and robbing stores for fun. "It's crazy," he admits. "It wasn't even about the money." Having tried his hand at responsible living—"playing by the rules"—and come up short, Richard set out to reclaim his power by force. "It started becoming like a rush to me, like a drug to me," he recalls. "The shock when you bust in the store, the fear in people's eyes."

Fortunately, the police put an end to Richard's antics before he had the chance to shoot another person or get himself shot. He was tried and convicted without a fuss. Now, four years after the fact and recently released from federal prison, Richard makes no bones about serving his time in the pen. It's the stuff that happens after his release—what's brought him to this place—that has him in a state.

With an air of defeat, Richard describes the multiple attempts he's made since his release to line up work and a home—along with food stamps and public assistance in the meantime—and to reclaim his right to vote. The experience is always the same, he says: when he discloses his felon status, doors close in his face. "Some people don't believe in second chances," he says. "Once you're a criminal, always a criminal—they'll do anything to keep our people down."

* * *

"Our people," in this case, refers to the quarter-million Alabamans—and millions of other impoverished people across the United States—who have lost their citizenship status because of felony convictions. Most are nonviolent offenders and some will never set foot in prison or jail. Nevertheless, their ability to influence the laws under which they live is severely restricted from the moment they are found guilty of an offense, leaving them effectively powerless to change the socio-political conditions under which most of them live.

Although the Constitution is silent on whether people convicted of felonies should have their rights curtailed, most American states have chosen to restrict the franchise in modern times. Nearly 6 million people in 48 states—2.5 percent of the adult population—are currently ineligible to vote because of a prior conviction. Two-thirds of them have completed their prison terms, including two million people in 35 states who are prevented from voting while on probation or parole, and two million more in 12 states who continue to be disenfranchised once they have served out their sentence in full. 

In the four most restrictive states—Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia—all citizens who are convicted of a felony permanently forfeit the right to vote, regardless of the offense. Ten states even disenfranchise citizens convicted of misdemeanors while they are serving time.

The rise in felon disenfranchisement across the United States closely tracks America's War on Drugs and soaring prison population since the 1970s. There are 2.4 million Americans currently serving time behind bars in local, state, and federal institutions—one fourth of the total prison population worldwide and seven times more than in 1972. People convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs account for one-third of all convicted felons, the largest single group. Other common felonies include property, white-collar, and driving-related offenses. Murderers and rapists make up just four percent of people behind bars.

Felon disenfranchisement is not randomly distributed across the population. The large majority of past and present felons who have lost the right to vote were raised and continue to live in poverty. According to an Urban Institute study, nearly eight in 10 incarcerated fathers earned poverty-level incomes of less than $2,000 in the month prior to their incarceration, and 40 percent did not have a full-time job—six times the overall rate of poverty at the time. Education counts as well: High-school dropouts are 10 to 20 times more likely than their college-educated peers to spend time behind bars, a fact which sociologists ascribe to diminished job opportunities for people with limited education in the United States today.

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Daniel Weeks is former president of Americans for Campaign Reform and a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He works on education in low-income communities at City Year.

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