Thursday, November 30
On the evening of Nov. 7, a crowd of 150 students, faith leaders, former prisoners, and community organizers gathered to watch election returns at a Dominican nightclub on the South Side of Providence, R.I. By 10:30, all the races were proceeding as predicted, and the TV reporters had no problem maintaining their dispassionate air–until one of them noticed that with more than 70 percent of precincts reporting, half of Rhode Island had voted to approve Question 2, a proposal to restore voting rights to felons on probation and parole. The reporter broke character. “Um, is anyone surprised about this? Felons voting? How is this question doing this well?”
His incredulousness was not shared by the crowd that was huddled before the televisions. Most in attendance had spent the past four days and nights working to assure approval for Question 2; some had spent the past four months working on it, and a few, like myself, had been working for two years to restore voting rights to 15,000 Rhode Island citizens. The final results revealed that Question 2 had passed with 51.52% of the vote. Rhode Island became the first state to reform a felon disenfranchisement law through a popular vote. A wave of relief, joy and exhaustion swept over us, but we weren’t surprised.
Although activists have fought the practice of denying voting rights to felons and ex-felons since the inception of such laws in the mid to late 1800s, our generation first took a hard look at felony disenfranchisement in 2000 when George W. Bush won, by just 537 votes, the deciding state of Florida, which permanently disfranchises all felons and ex-felons. Jeff Uggen and Chris Manza estimate in Locked Out: Felon Disfranchisement and American Democracy that over 1 million Florida citizens cannot vote, and thousands more have been scrubbed from the voting rolls because they happen to have the same name as a felon.
The uneven racial and geographic impact of these laws is staggering. In Florida, 18 percent of African American citizens cannot vote, and until last Tuesday, Rhode Island’s black community was in a comparable position. Over half of Rhode Island’s disenfranchised came from the state’s five most urban communities.
This disproportionate impact is not a coincidence. America is one of the few industrialized democracies with widespread felon disenfranchisement, and these laws have their roots in two singularly American historical moments. Most northern states enacted these laws in the mid 1800s, before the Civil War, concurrent with the termination of property requirements for voting, in order to limit the political power of the poor. Southern states enacted these laws after Reconstruction as part of their effort to undermine the political power of African Americans.
Although much has changed since the nineteenth century, racial and socioeconomic injustice persist in the United States, and there is strong evidence that these contradictions are expressed most clearly in the disproportionate and uneven impact of our criminal justice laws and their implementation.