|As I See It? 7-13
Monday, July 21, 2008
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
An impassioned Virginia governor Tim Kane, at an election rally in June, loudly pledged that he would do everything he could -- as quick as he could -- to scrap Virginia’s ban on ex-felons voting.
While this was great news for Democrats, Republicans quickly screamed foul. Virginia and Kentucky are the only two remaining states that permanently bar ex-felons from voting. Republicans branded Kane’s call to scrap the ban a crass, naked political ploy to pump up the Democrats vote total in the November election in an effort to tip the state for the first time in decades to a Democratic presidential contender.
It’s tough to argue with their claim. Despite Kane and the Democrat’s lofty and pious talk about restoring civil rights for ex-felons who are still treated as political pariahs, the ban on their voting has been in place for decades. And during that time there has been no sustained move by Kane and other legislators to scrap the ban. That is until now. Lifting the ban will clearly boost the Democrats in the fall.
Oddly, the same argument was made when Florida Republican governor Charlie Crist pushed to end the ex-felon vote ban in Florida in 2007.
Florida is a contentious swing state and almost certainly if ex-felons had not been barred from voting in the state, Democrat Al Gore would have won the White House in 2000. The ban on ex-felon voting also may have deprived Democratic presidential contender John Kerry of thousands of potential votes in Ohio in 2004. The absence of ex-felon votes there helped insure Bush's White House return.
The felon ban is and has been a touchy political football. Blacks make up a huge percentage of those barred from voting because of a prison stint. They are far more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. But even if Virginia follows Florida’s example and scraps the ban (Kentucky legislators voted down a move to eliminate the ban) more than a dozen states still have partial bans on ex-cons voting, or make it so difficult for them to get their rights restored that for all practical purposes they're banned from voting for life.
It's no accident that five of the dozen states that perpetuate this morally and legally indefensible practice are Southern states.
The South has had a long and deplorable history of devising an arsenal of racially abusive tactics including poll taxes, literacy laws, and political gerrymandering to drive blacks from the voting booths. This thinly disguised relic of the South's Jim Crow past has done much too drastically dilute black political strength.
In 1996 about 4 1/2 million black men voted in the presidential election.
If the 1 million black men in prison, on parole, or probation that were disenfranchised because of their criminal record had been added to the total their vote might have made a crucial difference in deciding close statewide contests.
The number of black ex-felons that will have to leap over hurdles to get their vote reinstated will probably increase no matter what Virginia ultimately does. Blacks now make up nearly half of the more than two million prisoners in the nation's jails. Racially tinged drug law sentencing, chronic poverty, and gang violence in many black communities means that more black men will be arrested, prosecuted, convicted and serve longer prison sentences than white men.
The Sentencing Project estimates that at the present rate of black incarceration upwards of forty percent of black men could be either legally or de facto barred from the polls in the vote restricted states in the next few years. And since most state officials are scared stiff of being publicly labeled as soft on crime, state legislatures have either ignored the issue or stonewalled legislation that would end the archaic practice. Congress hasn’t done much to dump the ban despite legislation to restore voting rights to ex-felons in federal elections.
The laggards in Congress include many Democrats, whom one would think in an election year when they seeming have the best chance they’ve had in a decade to snatch back the White House to do everything they could to lift the federal ban.
The denial of voting rights to thousands of blacks decades after the end of slavery and legal segregation is a blot on the democratic process. That denial has cost the Democrats thousands of votes in state and national elections.
Virginia governor Kane’s call for an end to felon vote disenfranchisement may be an election year political ploy to ramp up the Democratic vote for Obama. Or, he may be motivated by a sincere desire to restore rights and to end an injustice. Whatever the motive the only thing that really counts is that the permanent felon bans that shove tens of thousands of ex offenders to a political netherworld be ended and ended now.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson's new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).