24 October 2004
The democratic principle of one man one vote does not necessarily hold true for convicted felons in the United States. In most states, felons can vote once they've finished serving their sentences. But in others, laws prevent them from ever voting again. Some groups are concerned about the removal of voting rights, whether temporary or permanent a process called felon disenfranchisement. A new study shows it has the greatest impact on heavily African-American neighborhoods.
The report was put together by The Sentencing Project. The group chose one city - Atlanta - and tallied how many people in individual neighborhoods are not allowed to vote because of felony convictions. It found higher numbers of convicted felons in many heavily African-American areas, and, by extension, more people who can't vote.
Ryan King is co-author of the report, says "what's groundbreaking was it was the first attempt to get down to the neighborhood level and take a look at how many persons are disenfranchised, moving beyond the states. We found in Atlanta that 1 in every 7 black males - about 14% - are disenfranchised as a result of a felony conviction."
One almost exclusively African-American neighborhood included in the study had a disenfranchisement rate of 4 percent. In another, predominantly white, neighborhood, the disenfranchisement rate was only a tenth of that. Sentencing Project officials believe the findings are typical of other cities across the country. Georgia's policies on felon disenfranchisement are stricter than some other states more lenient than others, they're considered in the medium range.
Ryan King says the results of his group's study contradict a common assumption: that African-American men don't register to vote because they're not interested in politics. The study found the biggest reason they don't register is that they're not allowed to. "This data is suggesting that perhaps what we're really seeing is the impact of disenfranchisement and not some level of political apathy in general," he says.
Sentencing Project researchers argue that felony drug laws are disproportionately enforced in black communities. The group advocates reform of sentencing laws, including those that call for the removal of voting rights.
That goal has support from many civil rights leaders and some lawmakers. In a news conference at the Georgia capital, state representative Bob Holmes called the current laws a travesty. "This is a clear case of taxation without representation. A person gets out of prison, he or she has served his or her time, they get a job, pay income tax, property tax, yet they are denied the right to vote for the elected officials who then spend the property tax," he says.
Mr. Holmes was joined by Carl Route of the National Association of Formerly Incarcerated People, who spent ten years in prison for possession of marijuana with the intent to sell. "Here I am today, a father and a worker, who works every day and takes care of his children. The restoration of voting rights to those who have served their time, it's the least we can do," he says.
It's a debate that goes on around the country, with some lawmakers arguing the removal of voting rights is a legitimate way to punish criminals.
Some observers see The Sentencing Project's report as evidence of yet another way that crime is hurting the black community by diminishing its political voice. Although the speakers at the news conference did not characterize the report that way, state representative Tyrone Brooks said it should encourage civil rights leaders to address all the factors that result in the large disenfranchised population. "Certainly this report is a wake-up call. It should energize and motivate us, not only in Georgia but across America because it impacts us more than any other segment of the population," he says.
The Sentencing Project says there are about 5 million Americans whose voting rights are restricted because of felony convictions. About a third of them are black, although in actual numbers, there are more whites than blacks who can't vote.
Many Americans were not aware that some citizens are not allowed to vote until the 2000 presidential election, when some African-American voters in Florida were incorrectly listed as disenfranchised felons and turned away from the polls. Sentencing Project officials say that helped bring attention to a troubled system - and reminded the country that every vote can make a difference.