In 1993 Clinton Drake, a Vietnam veteran working as a cook on an Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana, his second drug offense. He was charged with a felony, stripped of his right to vote and sentenced to five years in prison. After his release he drifted in and out of employment and never managed to pay his outstanding court fees, a prerequisite for regaining eligibility as a voter. When the 2004 presidential election came around, the only option available to Drake–and the more than 4 million Americans similarly excluded from the polls–was to stay home.

Drake’s maddening story is one of dozens captured by Nation reporter Sasha Abramsky in his new book Conned, a shattering assessment of American injustice. Abramsky first investigated the disenfranchisement of ex-felons during the chad-ridden ordeal of the 2000 recount, when it turned out that hundreds of thousands of Floridians, most of them African-Americans from Democratic districts, had been purged from the rolls. Four years later, armed with a copy of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and guided by a deepening concern about antidemocratic trends in criminal law, he hit the road again. As Bush and Kerry squared off, he set out to highlight a growing segment of the electorate whose opinions on the candidates officially didn’t count. Along the way he met with scores of politicians seeking even more restrictive legislation as well as latter-day suffragists fighting on behalf of ex-felons. His book, a coast-to-coast tour of the other America, punctures the national fable of equality under the law, revealing a system of disenfranchisement that makes a mockery of the freedom our government all too confidently advances as a global model.

In some states, Abramsky points out, tough sentencing laws and draconian attitudes toward addiction team up to disenfranchise felons permanently for the pettiest of crimes. Elsewhere, the onus is placed on ex-felons to “prove” their eligibility to vote upon release, an arduous process that often involves wading through a bureaucratic maze, tracking down personal references and passing a literacy test. Some parolees are automatically re-enfranchised, but in the absence of laws requiring states to inform them of their status, many assume they can’t register. And in states where juveniles are tried as adults, teenagers are losing the right to vote before they’re old enough to cast a ballot.

Critics contend that former prisoners are unlikely to participate in elections, but Abramsky finds plenty who are desperate to vote. He cites studies showing that most of these Americans tilt toward the left, and that if the pool of voters had included them, recent elections at all levels would have swung decidedly in favor of Democrats. Calls for reform, however, have made little headway because the politicians who would benefit from it are afraid of any association with criminals; after all, leading Democrats were quick to embrace the “tough on crime” policies of the late 1990s. Efforts to frame the issue in terms of rehabilitation must contend with not only long-held American ideas about punishment but also deeply embedded prejudices. As Abramsky notes, disenfranchisement “is too heavily laden with the baggage of a culture divided along racial and class lines ever to be viewed as simply a criminal justice matter.” In at least nine states, more than 25 percent of African-American men are barred from voting, and in several other states the figures are nearly as high. Across the board, the number of minorities who are pushed into the prison system is staggering, and the number of them who are invited back in to the electoral process is dreadfully low.

Abramsky regards this national trend as a “Southernizing” drift, a troubling regression to the post-Reconstruction-era conception of democracy “that defined the polity, and a citizen’s right to participate in it, by property ownership and a certain degree of financial independence.” The laws that keep a disproportionate number of minorities either locked up or locked out of the polls may not be as blatant as Jim Crow. But Abramsky leaves no doubt that the promise of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is still far from being realized.