Felony Disenfranchisement and the Right to Vote – America’s Failure in the 21st Century

The right to vote. It’s a powerful phrase that has led to progressive changes throughout America’s history. It is not only symbolic of a people’s ability to voice their opinion regarding their government and nation’s position in the world but to affect actual change that touches every part of society. It has allowed the most vulnerable subset of every group to stand up and say “listen to me, I matter”.

Originally voting was a privilege restricted only to property-owning, white males. For close to a hundred years theirs were the only voice that mattered. In the halls of justice, law, and society the rest of America did not exist. Poor whites, free African-Americans, slaves, women, Native Americans….the list goes on, were voiceless. The call to expand voting rights has always been met with resistance that is intrinsically rooted in America’s fear of the “other”. It is ugly histories made even uglier by the lengths people have gone to maintain the status quo. Literacy and religious tests and poll taxes are only some of the tactics used by states to restrict voting, not to mention outright fear mongering and violent coercion.

America has made great strides since the mid-1860s. Since the Civil War, voting became a federal issue and it has had a domino effect ever since. No longer can the right to vote be denied based on “place of birth” (14th Amendment), “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (15th Amendment), “sex” (19th Amendment), “failure to pay any poll tax or other tax” (24th Amendment), and “age” (26th Amendment). Each removal has brought about a reactive social change. Empowerment and the knowledge that you matter has always been the driving force behind America’s progress as a nation devoted to equality and respect for all.

And yet today more than 6 million Americans are still prevented from exercising their right to vote. Felony disenfranchisement is one of the few legal legacies of the Jim Crow era that still affect millions of people nationwide. Such laws disproportionately affect people of color, specifically African-American men. According to NYU School of Law (Brennan Center for Justice) 13% have lost their right to vote because of criminal convictions.

And now we have a chance to rectify this wrong. Rarely do you see a moment of clarity and bipartisanship gain momentum in today’s Congress and public discourse that addresses such a polarizing subject head on. But it is here. Now. The Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act of 2015 has been garnering support from both sides of the aisle. It would reinstate voting rights to all nonviolent ex-offenders for federal elections. And while more than 20 states have made individual strides towards breaking down voting rights barriers for ex-offenders, it won’t be until this issue is tackled at the federal level that we will be able breathe a sigh of relief knowing that every voice really does matter. The fight for the right to vote may be part of our nation’s past but it is still very much alive today.

*Data reference: https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/restoring-voting-rights

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