Millions of American citizens are already barred from voting in the upcoming presidential election, or in any election, because of their criminal history. And with the new rash of voter ID laws, a million more Americans may be disenfranchised as well. As a result, in November, it is far more likely that a white, middle class (or wealthier) and middle aged (or older) American will vote than one who is African American, poor and young. In a country with a constitutional amendment granting voting rights to all, and after a twentieth century civil rights movement that overcame poll taxes and intimidation to extend voting rights to all, a significant portion of our population remains unable to cast their ballots, by law or by the practical hurdles thrown in their path.
Felon Disenfranchisement: Citizens Legally Barred from Voting
Forty-eight states – all but Maine and Vermont — keep about 5.85 million Americans with felony convictions off voting rolls, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy group. There is no question that African-Americans and Latinos, disproportionately targeted by the “War on Drugs,” are hardest hit by these laws. Blacks, for example, made up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, but 37.9 percent of the more than 1.5 million people in federal and state prisons, according to data from the Census and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sixty percent of inmates are people of color. More African American men are barred from voting today (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race, according the Michelle Alexander, law professor and author of The New Jim Crow. One in seven black men nationwide has lost his right to vote—one in four in some states. Many of those barred from voting are veterans or family members of military service members.
As I explain in more detail in my book, Swagger, the U.S. currently incarcerates more of our own people than any other country on earth, or in human history. With just over 4% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. Mass incarceration means massive and growing numbers of Americans precluded from voting, even if their felony convictions are for marijuana possession or check kiting decades ago.
In many European countries, incarcerated people are encouraged to vote behind bars, to keep them connected to their country and to foster a sense of citizenship. In America, convicted felons – even those who “did their time” years ago and are now leading productive lives, contributing to their communities and paying taxes – often cannot vote the rest of their lives.
Granting full voting rights to all American adults should be a priority for a country that prides itself on being a free and fair democracy. Instead, in the last few years, we have moved in the opposite direction, keeping more citizens away from the polls.
Voter ID Laws
Prior to the 2006 election, no state ever required a voter to produce a government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. In 2006, Indiana became the first state to enact a strict photo ID law, a law that was upheld two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court. That opened the floodgates. Today, thirty-one states require ID for voting. Seventeen of these require a photo ID, and several others have laws pending. Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania have the toughest versions — voters cannot cast regular ballots there without first showing valid photo ID. Other states with photo ID laws offer some more flexibility by providing voters with several alternatives (such as being recognized by a poll worker).
Voter fraud, the purported justification for voter ID laws, is extremely rare. An analysis by News21, a national investigative reporting project, identified just ten voter impersonation cases since 2000 — a rate of one out of every fifteen million prospective voters.
The impact on prospective voters, on the other hand, is potentially devastating. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, about eleven percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly twenty-one million citizens, don’t have government-issued photo ID. Minorities, including African Americans, Latinos and Asians, are less likely than their white counterparts to have a government-issued ID. Twenty-five percent of African Americans and sixteen percent of Latinos lack such identification, compared to nine percent of whites, according to the Brennan Center. Young, minority voters will be the hardest hit: between 170,000 and 475,000 young black voters; 68,000 and 250,000 young Hispanic voters; 13,000 and 46,000 young Asian-American voters; 1,700 and 6,400 young Native American voters and 700 and 2,700 young Pacific Islander voters could be denied the right to vote or turned away at the polls for not having the proper credentials.
Legal action is underway challenging the validity of voter ID laws.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that states with a history of discrimination receive preclearance before making changes to voting laws. Texas and South Carolina passed strict photo ID laws in 2011 but were refused preclearance by the Department of Justice, which argued that these laws could suppress turnout among minority voters. On the other hand, a few weeks ago the DOJ granted preclearance for New Hampshire’s voter ID law.
Court rulings have been a mishmash. Texas went to court recently seeking judicial preclearance from a federal district court; a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that its law discriminated against poor and minority voters. “Poorer citizens, especially those working for hourly wages, will likely be less able to take time off work to travel to [an ID-issuing agency] office,” Judge David Tatel wrote. “A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges the right to vote.” A decision is expected soon on South Carolina’s voter ID law. Michigan’s Supreme Court upheld that state’s voter ID law as constitutional. Georgia’s voter ID law was enjoined by a federal district court, and then reinstated by the federal appellate court. A state court struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law in the spring of 2012. And Pennsylvania’s highest court is mulling over the constitutionality of that critical swing state’s voter ID law as I write – an important ruling that could potentially make a difference in this fall’s presidential election.
For the twenty-five percent of African-Americans who don’t have photo IDs, the ten million eligible voters who live below the poverty line and more than ten miles from the nearest identification-issuing authority, and for vast numbers of disaffected voters who simply decide that voting is not worth the hassle and expense of obtaining the necessary documents, the hurdles created by voter ID laws may make the difference between casting ballots or sitting out elections and letting others decide who to elect.
And when that happens, we have taken a giant leap away from core American principles like “one person, one vote” and “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” upon which our nation was founded.
The opinions expressed here represent my own and not necessarily those of Avvo.com.