roger clegg name-checked my research with jeff manza in sunday’s pro-disenfranchisement wall street journal editorial. countless writers oppose the practice, but mr. clegg is perhaps the most articulate among the few proponents of felon voting bans. the full piece is subscription-only, but here’s the relevant passage:
…So why is there an effort to give criminals the right to vote? Partly there’s a sincere if mistaken belief that can be summed up as: “When a person has paid his debt to society, it is unfair and counterproductive to treat him as a second-class citizen.” But much of the momentum comes from a feeling that, because a disproportionate number of felons are black, the laws are racist.
Finally, this issue has a partisan tinge. Most politicians’ instincts tell them that these potential voters are likely Democrats, and they’re probably right. Profs. Christopher Uggen of Northwestern and Jeff Manza of the University of Minnesota have concluded that, had felons been enfranchised, Al Gore would have been elected in 2000, and the Democrats would have controlled the Senate from the mid-1980s down to the present decade.
In any event, the arguments favoring voting rights for felons don’t wash. Serving time may pay a debt to society in some sense, but it’s not the end of the story: Felons can’t possess firearms or serve on juries, and we don’t let them hold certain jobs. The “debt to society” argument is something of a red herring, moreover, as leaders of the movement to enfranchise felons believe that they should have the vote while they’re still paying the debt. Marc Mauer of the ACLU’s Sentencing Project, for example, has acknowledged that “people in prison should have the right to vote.”
The racial issue is also a red herring. Certainly the disenfranchisement laws do have a disproportionate impact on some racial groups, because there are always going to be more individuals in some groups that commit crimes than in others. That doesn’t make the laws racist — just as they are not sexist simply because more men than women commit crimes.
Today’s laws restricting or prohibiting felons from voting have their roots in ancient Greece and Rome , came to the American colonies from Britain , were adopted without any racist intent, and are not applied discriminatorily.
you can probably guess that i took issue with a few of the statements. i was surprised to learn i’d been traded to northwestern (presumably for professor manza), but i’d heard most of mr. clegg’s other arguments before. after some discussion with neema trivedi of the brennan center, i decided to send a brief letter to the editor. it seems kind of pathetic to blog a letter that may never be printed, but i felt that someone should at least take issue with the “adopted without any racist intent” statement. in some states, at least, i think there is good evidence of racist intent. here’s the letter:
To the Editor:
Roger Clegg’s editorial (“Franchise Protection,” Aug. 26) asserts that U.S. felony disenfranchisement laws “were adopted without any racist intent.” This is a misleading account of the origins of America’s unusually restrictive felon voting laws.
Mr. Clegg correctly cites the ancient roots of disenfranchisement, but fails to note that many American laws were purposely enacted to dilute the voting strength of newly freed slaves.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, between 1865 and 1900, 19 states adopted or amended felony disenfranchisement laws. Alabama, for instance, added new disqualifying crimes that legislators thought African-Americans were more likely to commit. Along with poll taxes and literacy tests, such laws became mechanisms to “establish white supremacy” and avert the “menace of negro domination.”
This legacy of racial discrimination continues to sap the political strength of African American communities. Nationwide, nearly 40 percent of those disenfranchised due to a felony conviction are African American. In 14 states, more than one in ten African Americans has lost the right to vote.
There are thus good reasons for the emergence of felon disenfranchisement as a national civil rights issue. For felons as for other U.S. citizens, race is no “red herring” when it comes to the right to vote.
UPDATE: the journal published this letter on september 2, (“The Disenfranchised of History … and Now, p. A9).