“The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement”

Disenfranchisement News

From The Sentencing Project


ACLU files lawsuit challenging voting laws

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa recently filed a lawsuit against the state of Iowa, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s disenfranchisement laws that prohibit anyone convicted of any felony from voting. Earlier this year, the Iowa Supreme Court questioned whether all felonies necessarily constitute an “infamous crime,” which the Iowa Constitution states would disqualify a person from voting. The lawsuit asks the court to “declare that the Iowa Constitution prohibits the disenfranchisement of people convicted of lower-level felonies (such as non-violent drug offenses); and seeks an injunction to stop the state from bringing criminal charges against Iowans with past lower-level felonies who register to vote.”

ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Kelli Jo Griffin, an Iowa woman who lost her right to vote in 2008 following a non-violent drug conviction. She was told by her lawyers that once she completed her probation in January 2013 she would be allowed to vote, which was the state’s policy under former Governor Tom Vilsack (D). According to Griffin, she didn’t know this policy had been reversed in 2011 by Governor Terry Branstad (R) when she went to cast her ballot in 2013. The state charged Griffin with voter fraud and she could have faced up to 15 years in prison. After three months and $10,000 in legal fees, the jury acquitted her of all charges, though she still remains blocked from voting under current law.

Since Governor Branstad’s felony disenfranchisement policy went into effect, an estimated 8,000 Iowans have completed their felony sentences, but only 12 have had their voting rights restored.


Advocates take action to restore voting rights on 2016 ballot

A coalition of groups prepare to launch a petition drive to get a constitutional amendment on the 2016 Florida ballot to automatically restore voting rights to people who have completed their felony sentence. The ballot measure would not apply to people who have been convicted of a murder or a felony sexual offense.

There are an estimated 1.3 million Floridians who have completed their sentences and are living in their communities. Based on an analysis by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), the recidivism among those who successfully regained their civil rights was 20.7% lower than for those who had not had their rights restored. Desmond Meade, president of the FRRC, says “The quicker you allow a person to re-integrate into society, the less likely they are to recommit crime.”

“the Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement”

In a recent New York Times commentary, Brent Staples explores the racist origins of felony disenfranchisement, and how the laws were used during the 19th and 20th century to undercut African American political power. White supremacists were very clear that excluding blacks from voting was necessary to avert the “menace of Negro domination,” Staples reports. The larger the state’s black population, the more likely the state was to pass strict laws that permanently denied people convicted of crimes from voting. He notes that neither Vermont nor Maine, with small black populations, place restrictions on people convicted of even very serious crimes.

In Think Progress, Erica Hellerstein highlights Virginia’s strategic 1876 constitutional amendment that expanded disenfranchisement to include misdemeanor theft, which black men at the time were much more vulnerable of being convicted of and whose innocence was much harder to prove. “Sometimes, sharecroppers would even go so far as to round up a group of black men in the run-up to an election and accuse them of stealing things, effectively stripping them of the right to vote.”

Ira Glasser, former ACLU Executive Director and President of the Drug Policy Alliance Board, writes in The Huffington Post that felony disenfranchisement laws didn’t have much large-scale effect until the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act were passed in the late 1960s, destroying the legal infrastructure of Jim Crow laws. At that time there were fewer than 200,000 people in federal and state prisons combined, but that number grew rapidly after 1968 and the proportion of blacks who were incarcerated grew rapidly, often for non-violent drug offenses.