The Right to Vote: Universal or Qualified?

By Couture, Claude | Inroads, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Right to Vote: Universal or Qualified?


Couture, Claude, Inroads


Currently, 1.4 million African-American men - 13 per cent of all black men - are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. This is seven times the rate for all Americans. Even in a state like New York, race and ethnicity have a lot to do with whether a convicted felon gets sent to prison. Blacks found guilty of felonies are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be sentenced to prison as opposed to probation. Blacks constitute less than 16 per cent of New York state's population but account for almost 51 per cent of the 71,000 people in prison and 50 percent of those on parole. Latinos, about 15 percent of the state population, are almost 30 per cent of the prison population and 32 per cent of those are on parole. Such numbers can be seen as the latest expression of discrimination going back to colonial days.

On November 8, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear two cases, one in New York state and the other one in Washington state, challenging laws stripping felons of the right to vote. Every state except Maine and Vermont disenfranchises people who have been convicted of crimes. Theplaintiffs based their challenge on a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act, as amended in 1982, prohibiting any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting" that results in any citizen's right to vote being denied or abridged "on account of race or color." The argument presented by the plaintiffs stressed that the impact of felon-disenfranchisement laws fell on minority groups, particularly black and Latino men. The number of people barred from voting under these laws is estimated at four million, of whom more than a third are black men.1

The Washington case, Locke v. Farrakhan, No. 03-159?, was filed by four black men, one Hispanic man and one American Indian. The Washington state constitution prohibits from voting "all persons convicted of an infamous crime." The Federal District Court in Seattle dismissed the lawsuit, but the 9th Circuit, which sits in San Francisco, reinstated it. The state appealed to the Supreme Court.

In a similar case in October 2004, the 11 judges of the full United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which sits in Atlanta, heard arguments in a case challenging Florida's lifelong felon disenfranchisement law, which bans an estimated 600,000 state residents from voting. The plaintiffs presented evidence that Florida's law, which dates to 1868, was enacted with the intention of keeping newly enfranchised blacks from voting. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit had ruled that the lawsuit could go to trial, but the full court vacated that decision and granted Florida's request for reargumentt. …

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