Earlier this week, two e-mails were sent out by groups that monitor disenfranchisement numbers. One explained how more than 6 million US citizens cannot vote because they are either in prison or jail, on parole or probation, or live in one of the states—mainly in the Old South—that pretty much permanently disenfranchise anyone ever convicted of a felony. The second e-mail detailed how New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, was using his executive powers to re-enfranchise 35,000 parolees in the state, 71 percent of whom are people of color.
The two e-mails, taken as a whole, are a snapshot of where the disenfranchisement debate stands nationally: In an era in which huge political struggles around the franchise are being waged on terrain that includes gerrymandering, limiting the opening hours of polling stations, imposing discriminatory voter-ID requirements, the creation of “voter purge” lists, and so on, vast numbers of Americans have essentially been pushed outside the institutions of democracy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the overlap of a mass-incarceration system that has swept up millions of poor people, and disproportionate numbers of black and brown people, with felon-disenfranchisement laws.
In states like Florida—where a staggering 1.5 million people are denied the vote, and where a ballot initiative this November could, at a stroke, re-enfranchise the great majority of these men and women—Mississippi, and Alabama, upwards of one-quarter of African-American men are permanently disenfranchised. The laws that keep them in this subservient state are leftovers from the Jim Crow days; their continuance, largely at the insistence of GOP lawmakers and governors, a shameful stain on the country’s democratic culture.
Re-enfranchisement ought to be a nonpartisan, common-sense, and common-decency issue. Unfortunately, it’s not. In states like Iowa, Virginia, and Kentucky, where Democratic governors have sped up the re-enfranchisement process, GOP legislators or incoming Republican governors have reversed their course. In Florida, which has long been ground zero of the franchise wars, the GOP is ranged firmly against the vote-restoration initiative, and Governor Rick Scott is appealing a recent court ruling which found that his state’s methods of maintaining disenfranchisement—through only very selectively restoring the franchise, via personal request to the governor—are arbitrary and unconstitutional.
New York is now the latest front in this battle for basic voting rights. For years progressive Democrats in Albany have pushed to restore the franchise to parolees, and, just as regularly, the GOP, which controls the State Senate, has, along with a bloc of conservative Democrats, nixed the idea.