Wednesday, August 12, 2020

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C. Voting Disenfranchisement of African-American Males

Approximately 1.4 million African-American males' ability to vote in this country has been abridged temporarily or permanently. States have promulgated voting laws which prohibit prisoners, parolees, and ex-felons from voting. State disenfranchisement laws represent the new poll tax, literacy test, grandfather clause, and property ownership requirements that were previously used to exclude African-Americans from exercising their right to vote.

The exclusionary voting policies of states were exposed in the 2000 presidential election, when it was determined that more than 200,000 African-American males of voting age in Florida were denied the opportunity to vote. Extensive legal scholarship has been published on voter disenfranchisement laws, and the devastating impact of such laws on African-American males. However, states have been slow to modify their disenfranchisement statutes to ensure that all their citizens have the opportunity to vote, as guaranteed by the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. States that have established procedures to re-enfranchise ex-felons have made the process highly complicated or too costly for ex-felons to pursue.

There have been a number of unsuccessful constitutional challenges of state felon disenfranchisement laws. In Wesley v. Collins, an African-American male alleged that Tennessee's disenfranchisement law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court denied there was any violation of the Act. The court stated that [the state] may disqualify convicted felons from voting public without unlawfully interfering with equal opportunity of blacks to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.

Recently, the Circuit Court of Jefferson County in Alabama held in Gooden v. Worley that an Alabama law denying the right to vote to citizens convicted of moral turpitude was void until the legislature decided what crimes fall under this definition. The ruling may provide felons the right to vote.

The Supreme Court in Richardson v. Ramirez, held there was no Fourteenth Amendment limitations on states promulgating disenfranchisement laws. Justice Marshall in a dissenting opinion stated:

It is doubtful . . . whether the state can demonstrate either a compelling or rational policy interest in denying former felons the right to vote. The individuals involved in the present case are persons who have fully paid their debt to society. They are as much affected by the actions of government as any other citizens, and have as much of a right to participate in governmental decision-making. Furthermore, the denial of the right to vote to such persons is a hindrance to the efforts of society to rehabilitate former felons and convert them into law-abiding and productive citizens.

A majority of states prohibit individuals in prison, on probation, or on parole from voting. During the past decade, most states have eliminated the lifetime prohibition of ex-felons from voting. However, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia disenfranchise ex-felons for life, even though African-American males are disproportionately harmed by such laws. According to the Sentencing Project, nine other jurisdictions--Alabama, Arizona, District of Columbia, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, and Wyoming--have laws that partially disenfranchise ex-felons.

Interestingly, the states that disenfranchise ex-felons for life are located in the South. The greatest concentration of slaves was also located in the South. And those slaves were also denied the right to vote. Moreover, the southern states have the highest percentage of African-American males incarcerated in the country.

After Reconstruction, southern states in particular, as well as other states, passed disenfranchisement voting laws to control and limit blacks' right to vote. For example, the State of Georgia restricts people from voting if they are in prison, on probation, or on parole, resulting in approximately 66,000 African-American males being denied the opportunity to vote. The present-day effect on African-American voters, and particularly African-American male voters, is still prevalent. For example, in Virginia, it is estimated that 110,000 African-American males are unable to vote, 100,000 in Alabama, 200,000 in Florida, 150,000 in Texas, and 80,000 in Mississippi. African-American males continue to face state restrictions on their right to vote.

State disenfranchisement laws are not limited to just voting but also to employment, housing, and the opportunity to serve on a federal jury. For example, many employers have policies which prohibit the employment of individuals with criminal records. Again, African-American males are adversely impacted by such laws and policies, similar to periods of slavery and past Reconstruction. The mass numbers of African-American males who are incarcerated will face the collateral effect of imprisonment once they are released and seek to exercise their constitutional rights.

Even though the concentration of the most severe voter disenfranchisement laws is in the South, other parts of the country have similar laws. Rhode Island had the most restrictive felon disenfranchisement laws in New England. Approximately 2% of the voting-age population are unable to vote due to having a felony conviction, whereas 20% of African-American males of voting age are prohibited from voting. Similarly, the State of Washington's disenfranchisement and restoration policies were challenged by racial minorities in Farrakhan v. Gregoire. Even though there was compelling evidence that there was a racial bias in Washington's criminal justice system which impacts minority ex-felons' right to vote, the court held that the State of Washington's felon disenfranchisement law did not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

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