By Bruce Reilly, Deputy Communications Director, Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted Peoples Movement
The Washington Post recently brought up the important annual awareness of roughly 6 million people denied voting rights due to a felony conviction. Unfortunately, they are mistaken to sum up the problem as a “disproportionate effect on Blacks.” Indeed any legitimate conversation on America’s prison problem must include racial issues, however the real landscape is broader.
America has a history of reserving the right to vote for as small an electorate as possible. That history has been eroded by various groups over the years, while those in power have targeted new groups to exclude. The irony of recent Voter ID laws, purported to target undocumented immigrants, is that hardly any restrictions impeded immigrant voters if they were White men. And whenever I hear any mention of the Florida fiasco of 2000, I like to point out that more people were erroneously disenfranchised by non-existent felonies than were all the people who voted for Ralph Nader. This issue is about citizenship and community building. It’s an America issue, not just a Black one.
When I was released from prison, I was no longer a citizen. I was stripped of what is universally considered the fundamental right of citizenship, as voting is the right through which all others are created and enforced. At 32 years old, I had never voted, never had a direct impact on governance, and (most importantly) never felt like an American citizen. I faced many other legal forms of discrimination (employment and housing, for instance) and dealt with a daily sense of ostracism.
Uniting with grassroots organizers was my only pathway to citizenship. Along with members of Direct Action for Rights and Equality and others, we wrote our own constitutional amendment in Rhode Island and got it on the ballot. We spoke with thousands of voters, many of whom meekly shared that someone in their own family was disenfranchised; someone who they would rather be more encouraged to be part of the community rather than pushed away into the shadows where crime and addiction thrive. Over the past two generations, Rhode Island has issued 250,000 unique prison ID numbers. That is 25% of the state’s population. The Bureau of Justice Statistics count 79 million people in state conviction databases. That is nearly a third of all the adults in America.
I won my own right to vote in Rhode Island, but then lost it again when crossing state lines to attend law school. It only took me a few weeks to discover the strange legal basis for losing my voting rights. After a year I had compiled a massive research paper on the racial history of felon disenfranchisement in Louisiana. Yet, the racist intent of the Post-Reconstruction Era is what took my citizenship away yet again. Until 1900, I would have had no problem voting, as I am White.
Whenever a politician, including judges and district attorneys, ask for my vote, I like to challenge them on why they need it. They typically will go into a short snippet on supporting what is good for the community, and how they bring it. If I ask the purpose of voting at all (and they know half of people don’t bother), they will talk about “civic duty,” and “rights of citizenship,” and how “the entire community needs me to take part,” and “think about the children who need a voice,” and on and on. They never give any caveat about, ‘unless you have a felony conviction.’
I always drop it on them, but I like to lure them in first. I am very much a part of helping the community, have a law degree, pay taxes… but have been stripped of my citizenship. They give me a look of confusion, typically, and then a sense that I am wasting their time (as they are trying to get votes). Dropping the “F for Felon Bomb” on a politician generally makes them go numb.
The racial impact is very true, but all people with felony convictions have an intense disproportionate impact on working class communities. My daughter may grow up to identify as Latina, White, Black, or Other, but that is irrelevant to my involvement on issues like education, health care, and public safety. Like any parent, I want our community to be a safe and healthy space where she can feel a sense of belonging. I don’t want her to feel like it is best to abandon ship or, like her Dad, feel like nobody wants her around.
States have no authority to take away someone’s citizenship, but that is what felon disenfranchisement does. Creating a large class of “other” people does nothing but divide and weaken us all.