Prisoners reach through the bars in the F Cellhouse at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., where they are housed in old-fashioned cells with metal bars, Friday, Jan. 18, 2008. Sometimes they use small mirrors to get a glimpse of their neighbors and the correctional officers. (AP Photo)National Journal

There's a segment of the voting-age population that few politicians talk about: Those with prior felony convictions. But it's estimated that nearly 6 million people — 2.5 percent of the population — won't be able to cast a ballot during the November elections because of a felony conviction.

 The vast number (4 million) are out of prison, and can't vote because they're either probation, parole, or live in a state that bars them from voting altogether. The rationale? "Disenfranchising policies go back to the time of the founding of the country"¦women couldn't vote, African-Americans, illiterate, poor people, and also people with felony convictions," said Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project's executive director. The common refrain is that those with a felony conviction might vote against the interests of law-abiding citizens.

A state-by-state analysis by The Sentencing Project showed that in six states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia — more than 7 percent of the population is disenfranchised. Such laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, are rooted in the tumultuous race relations from the past. Only Vermont and Maine impose no restrictions on felons or ex-felons.

Decades of tough sentencing laws and financial incentives to keep people behind bars has created a system where people are jailed at alarming rates. Louisiana is now the world's prison capital. Many of these men and women return home after completing their sentences only to learn they can't vote.

Blacks are being affected the most.  About 13 percent of black men have lost the right to vote, seven times more than the national average, and it's expected to increase. At the current incarceration rates, three in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to lose the right to vote. In states like Florida and Virginia, both considered crucial in deciding the outcome of the Presidential election, the numbers are staggering. About 23 percent of black population in Florida and 20 percent in Virginia are disenfranchised.

A significant number of Hispanics are also being disenfranchised, although at lower rates than blacks. A 2003 study by the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund, one of the country's prominent Latino civil rights organizations, found that an estimated half a million Hispanics in 10 states could not vote.

That weakens a community's political voice. "When a person is denied their rights to regain their civil rights"¦you don't just hurt that individual, but it also has an impact on their family and community in which they live," said Desmond Meade, president of the nonprofit Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota, and lead author of the Sentencing Project's study, said states with more people of color have passed the strictest disenfranchisement laws in the last century. It wasn't until recently that people began to analyze the impact of such laws. "For very long periods of time, these policies and their impact, in many ways, were underground there was little public discussion," he said.

A 2004 public opinion poll show that 60 percent of Americans favored restoring voting rights to people on parole. Some 30 percent said they would endorse allowing incarcerated people the right to cast a ballot.

This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.

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