Following the recent presidential election, pundits debated which demographic—Latinos, African-Americans, college students or single women—made the difference. A study shows, however, that the greatest impact on election results might have been the disenfranchisement of millions of American citizens who were forbidden from voting.
According to a report from the Sentencing Project, based in Washington, D.C., 5.85 million Americans were subject to laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felonies. Only about one-fourth of them are currently incarcerated, which means the remaining 75% are living in their communities, presumably paying taxes and have either fully completed their sentences or are under supervision while on probation or parole, Yet, they can't vote.
"Public opinion research shows that a significant majority of Americans favor voting rights for probationers and parolees who are currently supervised in their communities. as well as former felons who have completed their sentences." the report said. "How much difference would it make if state laws were changed to reflect the principles most Americans endorse?"
The Sentencing Project reported that about 2,5% of the total U.S, voting age population—one of every 40 adults—was disenfranchised in 48 states as of December 2010 due to a current or previous felony conviction. Nearly half of all states (23) currently have laws that disenfranchise both prisoners and those on parole and probation. Another 13 states bar prisoners-only from voting. Only Maine and Vermont allow both prisoners and those under community supervision to vote.
But 12 states—Alabama. Arizona. Delaware. Florida. Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska. Nevada, Tennessee. Virginia and Wyoming—have taken the extreme position of disenfranchising people even after they've completed community supervision.
Totaling 45% of the entire disenfranchised population, or more than 2.6 million Americans, Delaware and Florida require a five-year waiting period before ex-offenders can apply to restore their right to vote. While Nebraska automatically restores voting rights, but not until after a two-year wait. Arizona disenfranchises recidivists, and Nevada bars both recidivists and violent ex-offenders from voting. Tennessee disenfranchises all ex-offenders convicted of felonies since 1981—and many convicted of certain crimes since 1973—until they've gone through a lengthy application process.
And in Iowa, Gov, Terry Branstad reinstated the disenfranchisement of ex-felons in 2011 that former Gov. Torn Vilsack abolished through executive order hack in 2005.
According to the Sentencing Project, the greatest concentration of disenfranchised offenders and ex-offenders resides in the states of the former Confederacy—Alabama. Kentucky. Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia, which all have felon-disenfranchisement rates exceeding 7% of their overall populations. In Florida, more than 10% of its population—the highest rate in the country—can't vote because of prior felonies.
Not surprisingly, in those same states African-Americans are disenfranchised significantly higher than non-African-Americans. In three of them—Florida (23%), Kentucky (22%) and Virginia (20%)—more than one in five African-Americans cannot vote.
The Sentencing Project called for the restoration of voting rights to at least ex-offenders who are no longer incarcerated, which would create more than 4 million eligible voters. And maybe in 2016, candidates will court the ex-offender demographic as intensely as they do Soccer Moms.
Source: The Sentencing Project, "State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010," July 2012
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