So, have you decided who you will vote for in the upcoming presidential election – or whether you’ll vote at all? As you ponder that, realize that nearly 6 million Americans will not be allowed to vote this November. Who are they?
They are citizens who have been convicted of felonies and either live in a state that prohibits ex-cons from ever casting a ballot or they live in a state that requires a years-long waiting period before they are allowed to step foot in a voting booth.
Wait, you might be wondering: Isn’t voting a constitutional right? Nope. Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is a citizen explicitly guaranteed the right to vote. It is up to each state to set its own voting rules.
The experts who study this stuff call what’s happening to these 6 million citizens “disenfranchisement” and they note it hits certain segments of the population particularly hard.
The folks at The Sentencing Project, for example, says that as the U.S. dramatically expanded the prison population over the last four decades the, “Laws have significantly affected the political voice of many American communities.” In other words, swaths of urban neighborhoods, specifically, those with high concentrations of imprisoned or formerly imprisoned African Americans, now have a much diminished say in who our next commander-in-chief will be.
Among the latest statistics: 48 states ban voting by all incarcerated citizens. About a dozen of those states restrict an ex-con’s voting rights even after he or she has served their prison sentence and are no longer on probation or parole. Most of the other states make an ex-felon wait between two and five years after they’ve completely passed through the judicial system before they can apply for the privilege of voting. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no ban on voting. Even if the person lives in a prison cell and committed a heinous crime they are allowed to vote.
Look, before taking out the crying towel let’s remember these citizens who have been stripped of their voting rights are in that situation because they put themselves there. Let’s not forget they were found guilty of committing serious crimes. (The fact that there may be some wrongful convictions involved is a topic for another column) But all that said, is it fair to disenfranchise millions of Americans from the election process after they have paid their debt to society?
The Governor of Virginia thinks it is not fair. In the Commonwealth of Virginia one in four African Americans is permanently banned from casting a ballot. So, back in April, democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order that instantly restored voting rights to more than 206,000 ex-cons who had completed their probation or parole obligations.
It’s worth noting that for decades Blacks have overwhelmingly voted democratic, Virginia is considered swing territory for the 2016 race and Governor McAuliffe is a longtime fundraiser and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Creating more than 200-thousand new voters just months ahead of the November election — voters believed to lean toward the democratic party – didn’t sit well with Virginia republicans. They took the matter to the Commonwealth’s Supreme Court which has now ruled Governor McAuliffe overstepped his clemency authority when he sought such a bulk reinstatement of voting rights. True to the twists and turns of politics McAuliffe now says he’ll set his autopen’s speed on high and issue the same blanket clemency one case at a time.
Will Governor McAuliffe’s machinations help Hillary Clinton win Virginia in November? Will the newly reinstated ex-convicts actually register and show up to vote? Are officials in other states – be they republicans or democrats – engaged in similar politically tinged intrigues? You can bet some are.
And that, my fellow Americans, is how the political game is played in America these days.