A large number of Americans have quietly lost their right to vote, and African-Americans are bearing the brunt of this disenfranchisement more than any other group.
As conservative politicians have zealously sought over the past few years to repeal decades' worth of voting rights gains, an equally fervent opposition on the left has cropped up to fight them at every turn. But conservatives and liberals alike have often overlooked the voting rights of former prisoners, many of whom permanently lose their right to vote even for nonviolent offenses.
Three in 10 black men can expect to lose their right to vote at some point in their lives, according to data from 2010 compiled by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that works to reform the criminal justice system. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, which have some of the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws, 1 in 5 African-Americans is denied the right to vote.
The U.S. justice system places an outsized burden on people of color — especially black men. This disparity has led some to call felon disenfranchisement laws not only unfair, but one of the defining civil rights battles of our time. There's a growing movement that argues that prisoner disenfranchisement not only affects prisoners but the strength and stability of American democracy.
"There are ways that people pay back their debt to society when they've broken the law, but being taken out of the democratic process shouldn't be one of them," Jean Chung, a project coordinator and communications manager at the Sentencing Project told Mic. "With so many people disenfranchised, it's really become a national issue."
One in 56 white Americans are denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction, compared with 1 in 13 black Americans.
Perhaps because arguing for the rights of convicted criminals seems like political suicide in many states, the disenfranchisement of a huge swath of the U.S. population has gone largely unnoticed, even as voting rights became a larger part of the public's collective conscience.
Prisoner disenfranchisement laws vary from state to state, but they often have the same effect: removing mostly nonviolent, black offenders from the democratic process. In many states, people lose the right to vote regardless of their crime, whether it's murder or buying marijuana. And police have a long history of selectively enforcing drug laws.
Currently, 11 states bar convicted felons from voting permanently, even after they've served their prison time, probation and parole. In 24 states, convicted felons can get their right to vote back after serving either both probation and parole or just parole. In 13 states, people can vote as soon as they're released from prison. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — allow prisoners to vote.
Felon disenfranchisement laws deny nearly 6 million Americans the right to vote across the U.S., or 1 in 40 voting-age adults. When broken down by race, the stats get even more troubling. While 1 in 56 non-black people are denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction, 1 in 13 black voters are disenfranchised.
There are debates about whether these laws are specifically intended to disenfranchise people of color. While there's no way know the motivation behind many of the current laws, it is clear that laws restricting voting rights have an inescapably racist past.
"Many of the states that have felon disenfranchisement laws now are the places that had black codes during Reconstruction and states with the least restrictions tend to have the smallest black populations," Susan Greenbaum, a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Southern Florida and the author of multiple books on race, told Mic. "It doesn't take a tremendous amount of inferential thinking to realize the laws are designed to suppress votes."
Scholars and activists say felon disenfranchisement laws fall in the same category as other voting rights impediments being debated across the country, from voter ID requirements to rolling back early voting. Those laws aren't abjectly racist either, but they still have the effect of disproportionately barring blacks and Latinos from voting.
The uneven impact of felon disenfranchisement is further exacerbated by the current crisis of over-imprisonment in the U.S.: Since the 1970s, there's been a 500% increase in the U.S. prison population. Of those prisoners, blacks and Latinos now make up 4 of 5 low-level offenders in state prison. That means regardless of whether voting laws are color blind, they'll still place their greatest burden on communities of color.
But the sheer size of the disenfranchised population means not only black and Latino communities are affected. Research by professors at the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University shows as many as seven Senate elections would have had different outcomes had people convicted of a crime been able to vote.
Luckily, there recently seems to be some recognition among political leaders that the current voting laws are morally, and perhaps even politically untenable.
In February, Attorney General Eric Holder urged states to repeal felon disenfranchisement laws, saying they were "unnecessary and unjust." Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a man not usually seen as a leader on issues that affect people of color, has begun a campaign to overturn the laws in his state.
"I believe in these issues, but I'm a politician, and we want more votes," he said recently. "Even if Republicans don't get more votes, we feel like we've done the right thing."