The Last Disenfranchised Class
Disenfranchisement laws can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. In Renaissance Europe, people who committed certain crimes were condemned to a "civil death," and lost their civil rights. In the United States, many states passed disenfranchisement laws in the years just after Reconstruction, when blacks were first gaining the right to vote. At the time lawmakers justified the laws by invoking what one Alabama politician called the "menace of negro domination." "This was at the exact same historical period when poll taxes and literacy requirements were being adopted by many Southern legislatures," says Mauer. "All with the express purpose of disenfranchising black voters, so that one Southern legislator at the time referred to the felon disenfranchisement laws as almost an insurance policy." Today the laws are justified on race-neutral grounds, but their discriminatory impact remains.
Also, American laws seem to be out of sync with those of other countries in their severity. Prisoners never lose their right to vote in eighteen countries across Europe, including Ireland, Spain, Switzerland and Poland. In South Africa, prisoners helped to elect one of their own--Nelson Mandela. And last year the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that denying prisoners the vote is "anti-democratic" and "denies the basis of democratic legitimacy."
In the United States the laws affect large numbers of people, and black people in particular. Across the country, one in eight African-American men is barred from voting. In Florida and Alabama, it's one in three. Sometimes felon disenfranchisement laws take the vote away from whole communities. In New York State, 90 percent of prisoners serve their time upstate, yet overwhelmingly these prisoners come from just seven poor, minority neighborhoods in New York City.
Jazz Hayden is from one of those neighborhoods: Harlem. He's one of 131,000 prisoners or parolees in New York State who can't vote because of a felony conviction. As Hayden explains it, just about everyone in Harlem has a brother or a nephew or a cousin who's locked up. Though blacks make up only 15 percent of the state population, they make up more than half the prison population--a situation that is repeated across the country. Because whites are more likely to be offered plea bargains and alternative sentences, they are less likely to spend time in prison and lose the right to vote, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.
In the 1970s Hayden prospered in Harlem. He owned a nightclub and a building on the block where he grew up. But in summer 1987, Hayden was arrested for stabbing and killing a sanitation worker during a fight and was sentenced to prison, where he spent the next thirteen years. There, Hayden had a lot of time to think and read. He got a master's degree in theology. He also filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of prisoners in New York. "The vote in America represents power because come Election Day, when I go to the voting booth and Bill Gates goes to the voting booth all of us have one vote," he says. "George Bush, Bill Gates and myself--and it's probably the only time in America that we're all equal. And to deny me that right is to say that I'm not a citizen. I'm right back in the same situation that my ancestors were in."