Disenfranchising people for past criminal convictions has a long history. In ancient Greece and Rome, they had a name for stripping away people’s voting rights and other rights: “civil death.” English colonists brought ex-felon disenfranchisement to America.
Today, for 4.3 million American citizens who have left prison after doing time for a felony, freedom quickly becomes a relative term. They’re stripped of one of the most fundamental rights of being a citizen of a democracy: State laws forbid them to vote because of past convictions, though Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Monday that he had restored the right to vote for about 13,000 former felons.
The number of ex-felons disenfranchised has soared from 1.1 million in 1976, according to The Sentencing Project, based in Washington, D.C. Much of the increase stems from the explosive growth of mass incarceration in a country where 2.2 million people are imprisoned – five times the number four decades ago, largely as a result of the War on Drugs.
And as civil rights leaders, voting rights advocates and other critics of disenfranchisement laws hasten to point out, African-Americans bear the brunt of the voting bans: Nationwide, one in 13 African-Americans can’t vote because of a felony conviction, compared with one in 56 people who aren’t Black, The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says.
The consequences can be devastating in states with the most extreme ex-felon disenfranchisement laws. In Kentucky and Florida, for example, 18-year-olds convicted of a first-time drug offense who serve their sentences and even complete court-ordered treatment can’t vote for the rest of their lives without a pardon from the governor, which most do not receive.
“How many sentences do you have to serve?” said Tayna Fogle, who was imprisoned for nearly seven years for cocaine possession and writing bad checks in Lexington, Kentucky in 1991.
“I’m really ticked off. I’m a Black woman who did the most horrific time to pay my debts to society, and I’m just so sick of the way the system is set up to ensure we fail. There’s no way off this wheel. They want to put their foot on your neck so you can’t get in.”
Today, Fogle, a 56-year-old mother of two grown sons and grandmother of six children, traverses the state talking to organizations, classes, legislators and ex-felons as an advocate for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots organization which has fought for 11 years to restore ex-felon voting rights.
“If you don’t want me to vote, then I shouldn’t have to pay taxes, or I pay taxes and I vote. Either I’m a citizen or I’m not a citizen,” Fogle said.
She said Kentucky’s ex-felon voting restrictions make her think of African-Americans once being mauled by dogs, blasted with water cannons, even lynched.
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said half of disenfranchised ex-felons live in the 12 states with the most stringent laws, which bar even those who have completed sentences, parole or probation from voting.
Mauer said opponents of restoring ex-felons’ voting rights, particularly conservative Republicans, argue re-enfranchising ex-felons could create a “criminal lobby” that would vote against the interests of law-abiding citizens.
But, he said: “We want people to have decent jobs, a place to live and a good peer network. Voting is an expression of your commitment to the community and makes you less likely to victimize your neighbor when you’re home from prison. I’d much rather have an ex-felon standing in line next to me to vote than standing on a corner looking to get into trouble.”
Like the ACLU, Mauer cites research showing restoring ex-felons’ voting rights reduces recidivism.
Fogle, the Kentucky grassroots advocate, said she’ll continue fighting for ex-felons’ voting rights.
“We former felons are clawing at the back to be able to vote,” she said. “We former felons are simply left out of the democratic process.”
Gary Gately is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune and CBS News. About the top image: Eric Branch, 49, introduces Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, right, during an Aug. 22 ceremony dealing with the restoration of rights at the Virginia Civil Rights memorial in Richmond. Branch served over four years for breaking and entering and was released in April 1992. He had his rights restored on June 23, 2015. Richmond Times-Dispatch Photo by Bob Brown via AP
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