*READ THIS ARTICLE*. The right to vote has long been a matter of contention, dating to the time when the Constitution of the United States was adopted in 1789. Initially, many states limited voting rights to white males who owned property. Gradually, other white males were allowed to vote, followed by African Americans who had been emancipated from slavery. Women were not guaranteed the right to vote, known as suffrage, until 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In many cases, state legislatures adopted restrictions on voting that, while not explicitly or facially aimed at African Americans, had the practical effect of preventing most African Americans from voting.
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other measures growing out of the civil rights movement, state laws that prevent people convicted of a felony from voting have become the focus of both civil rights and prisoner rights advocates.
All but two states, Maine and Vermont, bar prisoners from voting. Two states, Virginia and Kentucky, have had permanent bans on felon voting. Other states, meanwhile, have prevented convicted felons from voting until they have completed their parole or for a set time period after their release from prison. Statistics show that these barriers affect mainly African Americans, who comprise a disproportionate share of convicted felons, compared to their percentage of the total prison population, making ex-prisoner voting rights a racial issue and a matter of civil rights for some advocates.
Understanding the Discussion
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): A non-profit organization, founded in 1920, dedicated to defending human rights and preserving civil liberties. It often files lawsuits challenging what it views to be violations of the rights granted by the US Constitution, including the right to vote.
Declaration of Sentiments: A statement signed at the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, designed to promote the idea that women, like men, have rights in society. It is considered to be a symbol of the start of the women’s suffrage movement.
Felony and Felons: A felony is a class of crime judged more serious than a misdemeanor, and a felon is anyone convicted of committing a felony. The distinction between felonies and misdemeanors differs among states, although as a general rule felonies are crimes for which the minimum sentence is over one year in prison. People often think of felonies as violent crimes, such as murder, but felonies can also include many other offenses, such as possessing illegal drugs, committing financial crimes or engaging in identity theft.
Voting Rights: The legal right to cast ballots in federal, state and local elections. Since the Constitution was adopted in 1789, voting rights have gradually expanded from white men who owned property to include virtually all citizens over the age of eighteen, with some exceptions.
Whether convicted felons should be allowed to vote is a question that implicates broader issues concerning voting rights in the United States. The right to vote has steadily expanded, from a minority of male citizens in 1789, to almost everyone over age eighteen by the twenty-first century.
When the Constitution was adopted in 1789, the right to vote was largely restricted to men who owned property. This excluded women, as well as any men who worked for landowners, merchants or other white male property owners. Then, as now, the right to vote was regulated by the individual states. The expansion of voting rights to all white men proceeded gradually, state by state, over the next thirty to forty years to include most white men, regardless of whether they owned property. During this period, the great majority of African Americans lived in southern states as slaves.
The struggle to end slavery, which by 1840 was practiced only in the southern states, culminated in the US Civil War (1861-65). But it was not until the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in March 1870 that formerly enslaved men were guaranteed the right to vote under the Constitution.
After the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, white officials in some states–mostly in those comprising the former Confederacy–devised a series of measures intended to prevent, or at least to discourage, African American men from voting. Among measures that were widely adopted were “literacy tests” that often included complex questions about government (notably, white men whose fathers had voted before adoption of the amendment were not required to take these tests); “poll taxes” that poor African Americans often could not afford; residency requirements and/or registration procedures that made voting difficult for many; and laws depriving people convicted of minor criminal offenses of the right to vote.
To avoid running afoul of federal requirements, these state laws, on their face, were drafted so as to apply to everyone. These laws did not express an intention to prevent a specific class of people from voting, but the effect was the same: by a wide margin, those excluded from the voting booths were African American, including freed slaves. The pattern of exclusion continued, in different forms and to varying degrees, for a century.
In the North, comparable measures were adopted to prevent the poor, recent immigrants and working class men from voting. In an era in which candidates often bribed individuals on voting day, conservative politicians pushed laws through requiring advanced voter registration, for example, or minimum residency requirements.
Laws requiring literacy tests or advanced voter registration did not specifically state that the intent of the law was to ban poor people from voting, but, undoubtedly, that was the practical impact. Defenders of such measures focused on the stated intent (an informed electorate, for example), whereas critics pointed to the exclusionary results and the widespread exemptions for preferred groups.
The abolitionist campaign to end slavery also gave rise to the women’s suffrage movement, which was aimed at giving women the right to vote. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, among others, the movement focused on the right to vote as a manifestation of equal status for the genders. Beginning with the adoption of the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848, the campaign lasted more than seventy years, culminating with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. In the meantime, several western states and territories, starting with Wyoming Territory in 1869, had already allowed women to vote.
The third major advance in extending the right to vote to everyone took place during the civil rights movement (1955-1967). The Voting Rights Act of 1965 specifically outlawed literacy tests and provided for federal officials to travel to seven southern states to register black voters. The United States Supreme Court, meanwhile, barred as unconstitutional state laws that limited voting to property owners or taxpayers, as well as rules that required lengthy residence in a state as a prerequisite to voting.
Rights of Convicted Felons Today
Most barriers to voting rights had been eliminated by the mid-1960s. The rules regarding convicted felons, however, remain the largest single exception to universal voting rights today. As of 2018, fourteen states and Washington, DC, grant automatic restoration of voting rights upon release from prison, and another twenty-one require completion of parole or probation. (Automatic restoration does not automatically register the freed person but rather enables them to register if they so choose.) Some states also mandate payment of fines, fees, or other monetary compensation before restoring voting rights. Thirteen others have more restrictive policies, such as requiring executive pardon or completing further waiting periods beyond a sentence. In some states like Iowa, voting rights may be suspended indefinitely for certain types of crime, such as sex crimes, murder, bribery, and treason. Governors have used executive orders in Kentucky, New York, Virginia, and Iowa to expand the restoration of voting rights; in some cases, as in Kentucky and Iowa, however, these orders have been overturned by later governors. .
The voting ban on convicted felons appears to fall most heavily on African Americans, who are over-represented among those convicted of serious crimes. In some states, particularly in Florida, analysts have concluded that bans on allowing released felons to vote tends, on balance, to benefit the Republican Party in elections.
This became a particular issue in the 2000 presidential election. Before voting began, Florida Governor Jeb Bush (brother of the Republican presidential candidate, and future president, George W. Bush) circulated an advisory reminding election officials that convicted felons were barred from voting. Many analysts have concluded that George W. Bush’s 527-vote margin of victory in Florida that year could easily have been wiped out if ex-felons had been allowed to vote. Notably, Florida’s law precluding felons from voting prevented 600,000 released felons from going to the polls in 2000.
Defenders of laws against letting one-time felons vote cite precedents back to the Middle Ages in Europe. A contemporary argument is that individuals who have shown that they were unwilling to abide by society’s laws should not have a voice in making laws.
Since the 2000 presidential election, a movement to ease limits on voting rights for former felons has gained momentum. In 2004, an effort by the state to remove a substantial number of convicted felons from Florida’s voting rolls was blocked after the list of purported felons was discovered to contain errors. The New York Times reported in October 2006, that sixteen states had moved to ease voting restrictions in the preceding decade. Citing a study by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, these changes, the newspaper reported, restored voting rights to 600,000 individuals, still leaving 5.3 million Americans who were denied voting rights as a result of their criminal records. By the 2012 election cycle, 5.85 million people were ineligible to vote because of past trouble with the law. In states like Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia, more than 7 percent of the adult population was barred from the polls. This was up from 2006, when an estimated 4 million released felons were barred from voting. The trend continued upward, with an estimated 6.1 million people having been disenfranchised due to felony convictions by July 2018.
In early 2018, Florida’s system of applying for clemency to obtain voting restoration was deemed unconstitutional and arbitrary, and that same year, a voting restoration amendment ballot initiative would allow for automatic restoration for former prisoners, except for those convicted of murder or sex offenses. Given Florida’s historic role as a swing state in federal elections, the decision was of national significance. Although both major political parties have stated their support for reintegration of former prisoners, Democrats have generally favored the restoration of voting rights more often than Republicans have. *ESSAY INSTRUCTIONS*. Introduction: Your introduction should describe the issue or topic. You should explain why the topic is significant and why it warrants a solution. Your thesis should clearly show the solution you will present in the essay.
Body Section 1: The first section of your essay should explain one of the sides of the issue. Fairly represent their arguments, concerns, and desired outcomes.
Body Section 2: The second section of your essay should explain the opposing side of the issue. Fairly represent their arguments, concerns, and desired outcomes.
Body Section 3: The third section of your essay should explain the shared beliefs and goals of the two perspectives. What do they have in common? Synthesize the two viewpoints to show how they will be able to build on their common goals.
Body Section 4: The fourth section of your essay should detail your proposed solution or alternate position. Show how to solve the problem in a way that will benefit both parties. Draw on the common ground between the parties to find a reasonable way to create a third perspective on the issue. Show your readers how this third perspective is preferable to the two opposing sides.
Conclusion: Your conclusion should restate the significance of the issue and synthesize the benefits of your proposed solution/third perspective.