Millions of Felons Are Getting Their Votes Back. Now They're Learning To Cast Them.
America has about as many felons as there are people in Texas. Six million of those felons have been disenfranchised and millions more don’t know they can cast a ballot.
What may be the biggest political revolution in decades is happening right under our noses.
Enfranchisement (or re-enfranchisement) is on the march in America, as politicians, activists, and non-profits have taken up the mantle of extending voting rights to the disenfranchised and ensuring Americans know their voting rights and how to obtain the necessary documentation to vote.
Roughly 23 million Americans have felony convictions, and over 6 million of them have had their voting rights taken away. That’s twice as many disenfranchised Americans as there were in the 1990s and six times as many as in the 1970s.
Many of the remaining 17 million felons are unaware that they can vote, and many state legislatures have shows no interest in letting them know or have actively resisted efforts to do so.
Still, the tide is turning. Florida’s Amendment 4 ballot initiative, which voters will decide on in November, would restore voting rights to nearly all of the state’s 1.6 million convicted felons—over 10 percent of the state’s potentially eligible voters. And even that is only one piece of America’s rising “democracy wave.”
This week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio approved an initiative that will help incarcerated New Yorkers cast their ballots this year. During previous elections the ballots of incarcerated New Yorkers would frequently get delayed by the jail’s mail system with its many security checks, resulting in ballots arriving to precincts too late to be counted. De Blasio’s initiative will instead have government officials pick up the ballots directly from the jails.
While New York state still bans those convicted of felonies from voting if they are incarcerated or on parole, that too may also change. Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed an executive order granting conditional pardons to New Yorkers on parole to restore their voting rights. Of the roughly 35,000 New Yorkers on parole who could not vote prior to this executive order, about 24,000 have received pardons thus far.
Cuomo and de Blasio represent a growing chorus of politicians championing voter re-enfranchisement, but you know a radical pro-democracy and voting movement is building when every-day Americans transform into voting rights activists and non-profits commit themselves to filling the democratic enfranchisement void that was all-too-often created by conservative politicians who benefit from voter suppression.
“Felony disenfranchisement laws are extremely complicated in many states, and there’s not a lot of resources out there to help people figure out what their rights are. A lot of the people who are newly re-enfranchised don’t know that they have their voting rights back,” Blair Bowie of the Campaign Legal Center told The Daily Beast.
The CLC began developing the Restore Your Vote site after the group had sued Alabama over its moral turpitude clause that had been unconstitutionally barring people from voting since Jim Crow. In 2017, Alabama passed legislation to enfranchise thousands of felons in the state, but Alabama’s government also took no initiative to inform Alabamians of their new voting status.
The website aims to change things for the 17 million or so convicted felons across America who can vote but too often remain de facto disenfranchised.
Bowie told The Daily Beast that she believes the growing interest in felon enfranchisement stems from the increase in activist movements discussing racial injustice, mass incarceration and political inequality and that this topic represents the convergence of all three.
While her statement is obviously non-partisan, it does demonstrate why voter enfranchisement has become, and always has been, a partisan topic in America, and why Americans cannot trust all of our political parties to protect our voting rights.
Since the founding of this nation there has been a political faction, mostly Southerners, who aspired to profit off of the dismantling of democracy. Starting with the three-fifths compromise where Southerners received additional congressional representation because they enslaved Africans, this political faction has always sought to have a disproportionately large influence in America’s democracy by undermining the integrity of our democracy.
Race has always been the catalyst for these saboteurs of democracy. Prior to the Civil War, slavery was their method. After Reconstruction, mass incarceration and Jim Crow became their new implements. Southerners even jokingly referred to Jim Crow as the “five-fifths compromise” because many an African American still could not vote despite being supposedly counted as a whole person.
As African Americans fled the terror of the South during Jim Crow, more states outside the South began actively preventing them from voting too. And not surprisingly, once Jim Crow ended America saw a significant jump in mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement that disproportionately impacts communities of color.
Over the years, these anti-democracy voices have called every political party home. Today, they overwhelmingly reside within the Republican party. In democracies where people can trust their government to protect the principles of democracy and educate people about their voting rights, this topic would be neither partisan nor controversial, but that’s not America.
Our democratic neighbors to the north actually have Elections Canada, an independent, non-partisan government agency, that enfranchises and educates Canadian voters to a degree never seen here. Currently, they have launched a massive campaign to educate, empower, and encourage indigenous Canadians about their voting rights and how to run for elected office. America has the Election Assistance Commission, but it is much less influential leaving non-profits like CLC to fill some of the space left behind here.
Voting rights and the principles of democracy should not be a partisan issue within a democracy, but sadly they are and long have been just that in America. This election could help finally end our oppressive, undemocratic status quo.