No Incarceration Without Representation

by Montana Gura –

United States citizens are fortunate to have the right to decide our nation’s future.

In this country, felony convictions do not take away that citizenship, but they do take away that right to vote. Felony Disenfranchisement is the restriction or elimination of voting rights, Second Amendment rights, and other benefits of citizenship for convicted felons.

Once released from jail, ex-felons—a population disproportionally made up of POC, typically Black Americans—lose enfranchisement indefinitely. In the United States, Felony Disenfranchisement violates civil rights by limiting participation in our country’s democratic processes—undemocratic and unethical both because they are US citizens and count towards population totals that establish district and state representation.

Felony Disenfranchisement originated in North America from English colonial common law practices of “civil death”—retracting voting rights for certain glaring moral offenses. After the American Revolution, however, states began disenfranchising all felons. Post-Civil War (in response to the brief period of African American prosperity, Reconstruction), many state governments turned to disenfranchisement to benefit their racist interests.

Alabama was flagrant in suppressing the Black vote, with the author of their disenfranchisement provision stating, “the crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify sixty percent of the Negroes.” South Carolina began disenfranchising people who committed what they referred to as “black” crimes—“thievery, adultery, arson, wife-beating, housebreaking, and attempted rape”—but not those convicted of murder or fighting. These racist implementations led to the unbalanced elimination of voting rights for Black Americans.

In North Carolina the racist motives behind widespread felony disenfranchisement could not be more clear. Before the 1860s, NC disenfranchised only those convicted of what were termed “infamous” crimes. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, an extensive movement organized by former rebels convicted Black North Carolinians of “infamous” crimes, with “the express goal of preventing African Americans from being able to vote.”

Further, NC added felony disenfranchisement to the state constitution in 1877 with this sole objective: “neutering the gains of Radical Reconstruction, particularly the advances of the 15th amendment which gave Black men the right to vote.” The felony disenfranchisement committee chairman, John Henderson, was an enthusiastic Jim Crow supporter, once managing the lynchings of three Black Americans.

The fact that this committee’s head was so unapologetically racist obligates North Carolina to take another look at the roots and ethics of such a practice.

Detrimental repercussions from these centuries-old laws continue to contribute to the racially discriminatory incarceration and felony disenfranchisement policies we see today. Black people have a five-fold chance of incarceration compared to their white peers, with significantly longer sentences. Black men are sentenced to 20% longer sentences than white men for the same crimes; and are 65% more likely to be charged with mandatory minimum sentences than their white counterparts committing the same offense.

Imprisonment funnels directly into disenfranchisement, with an average of one in sixteen African Americans aged eighteen or older stripped of their rights: 3.7 times greater than the rate of non-African American adults. Racial discrepancies in the US prison and disenfranchisement systems have prompted much discussion on whether these policies and practices honor the foundations of this country.

The constitutional debate surrounding felony disenfranchisement is passionate on both sides. While undoubtedly undemocratic, does it violate the US Constitution? The Fourteenth Amendment grants citizenship to every person born or naturalized in the US and states “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall … deny to any person … equal protection of the laws.”

Every citizen, regardless of any distinguishing factor, must be treated equally under the law, logically including the right to vote—something that does not occur under current policies. Many opponents to enfranchising ex-felons cite Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment for constitutional justification. Section 2 states government cannot deny or abridge any person’s voting rights except in the case of “participation in rebellion, or other crime.”

This is a compelling argument only if we disregard the rest of Section 2, as it continuously refers to the United States’ voting body as “male citizens twenty-one years of age.” The United States no longer restricts enfranchisement to white, twenty-one-year-old men, nor do we adhere to the moral ideologies of the 1860s. Therefore, the US should not continue to uphold this antiquated section of the Fourteenth Amendment. Voting disqualification should be abolished, for it goes against strides this nation has made in regard to civil rights.

The United States prides itself on civil rights advocacy—citizens’ rights to political and social freedom and equality. However, the US seems to fall short, considering millions of American citizens are forbidden to vote, even though they are required to pay taxes while imprisoned. The cry for “No Taxation Without Representation” rings true in 2021 as in 1773, and while felons are counted in population totals for their jail’s district—resulting in more representation for the surrounding community—they have no say in who that representation is.

The US cannot claim to support civil rights if the very policies it has in place effectively destroy them.

Nevertheless, the future of our democracy is not altogether bleak. There is hope: a Right To Vote Amendment to the US Constitution. An RTV Amendment would protect the right to vote for everyone, focusing on four areas: 1) ending loophole discrimination in the voting process in regard to voter suppression, misinformation, and severe partisan gerrymandering; 2) allowing ex-felons to vote immediately upon release; 3) allowing voters in Washington, DC to vote for federal representation, and 4) allowing residents of Puerto Rico to vote for federal representation.

The United States has much work to do to ensure equity in our nation. Millions of engaged, tax-paying, census-counted American citizens are outlawed from voting. Felony Disenfranchisement contradicts everything our country claims to honor: free fair elections, political and social equality, strong morals, and progressive ideologies. Stripping ex-felons of their right to vote is undemocratic, unethical, and un-American. We must work to establish a future where everyone is guaranteed equal protection under the law.

 

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