Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

It's Time to Change the Laws That Bar Ex-Cons from Voting

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

It's Time to Change the Laws That Bar Ex-Cons from Voting

Article excerpt

One million, four hundred thousand.

That number ought to be about strength. But for the black men it represents, it's about weakness.

They're former convicts. They're 13 percent of America's black male adult population.

And they can't vote. Not even if they wanted to.

They can't vote because felony disenfranchisement laws -- laws that range from cumbersome clemency processes to providing DNA samples -- discourage them. In 14 states, felons who finish out their prison terms get slapped with another sentence. They have to stay away from the polls.

For life.

It sounds as scary as Selma circa 1960.

It's scary because while 3.9 million former criminals, both black and white, male and female, can't vote, black men make up more than a third of that number. Scary because felony disenfranchisement laws are doing to black men today what the poll tax tried to do three decades ago; to use black people's vulnerabilities against them before they could realize their strengths.

From the late 1980s throughout the 1990s, the war on drugs began to blow the dust off laws that barred ex-criminals from voting. In Florida, for example, a 132-year-old law prevents prisoners who have done their time from having their rights automatically restored; they must go through a clemency process.

It also was a time when many black men wound up in prison for either using or selling drugs -- for either trying to escape their reality or to create a better one through less-than-legitimate means. They also were sentenced to state prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men, according to Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project.

But while these men were repaying their debt to society, others were capitalizing on the stereotype of their incorrigibility in a political market ruled by the same kind of fear-driven rhetoric that once propelled segregation. That rhetoric not only led to laws designed to keep dangerous criminals from lashing out at innocent people, it also worked to keep reformed felons from lashing out constructively in the voting booth.

That, to me, needs to change. …

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