Millions of Americans Remain Barred From Voting
The number of disenfranchised voters is down from the 2016 high of 6.1 million, but nearly 5 million people still don't have access to the ballot box because of a prior conviction.
Hi, folks! To all our new subscribers, welcome to our newsletter, and we’re glad to have your support. While we work on several new episodes we can’t wait to release, we just wanted to take a brief moment to update all of you on an archaic law that strips people of their voting rights. It’s hugely important considering we’re now less than a week out from the 2022 midterm elections. Enjoy this week’s newsletter.
As we barrel toward yet another consequential election that could decide the political makeup of the U.S. House and Senate, along with various statehouses, we’re already seeing reports that the country is experiencing high turnout during the early voting period.
The initial data suggests that Americans are so enthusiastic about voting in the 2022 midterms that totals may surpass 2018 levels, which was the first year Trumpism was on the ballot—resulting in huge gains for Democrats. Another sign that these midterms are unlike any other? Ad buys are projected to surpass the $9 billion spent during the 2020 presidential year election.
While Americans may flock to the ballot box in droves, there are millions of people across the United States who won’t get that opportunity: People living with a felony conviction.
According to a report released by The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research organization, an estimated 4.6 million Americans are barred from casting a ballot this year. That’s actually down from the 2016 high of 6.1 million disenfranchised voters, as advocacy groups over the last few election cycles have called attention to the centuries-old problem of stripping away people’s voting rights.
Currently, 15 states ban people from voting if they are in prison or on either parole or probation. An additional 11 states disenfranchise people who have completed their entire sentence—meaning they’ve complied with all legal mandates. Twenty-two states bar voting if you’ve been convicted of a felony and are currently incarcerated. Maine and Vermont remain the only two states in the country that have no such barriers.
Here’s a chart from the report breaking it all down:
While the number of people banned from voting has decreased by 24 percent since 2016, the report found that one out of every 50 Americans (2 percent of the population eligible to vote) is disenfranchised. Of the people whose constitutional rights are denied because of a felony conviction, three-quarters are no longer incarcerated.
To recap: Millions did their time, are on parole or probation, or have complied with all legal requirements and are completely free of the carceral system, yet have no say in what lawmakers, pundits, and the media characterize as an election in which democracy itself (!!!) is on the ballot.
“In this election year, as the United States confronts questions about the stability of its democracy and the fairness of its elections, particularly within marginalized communities,” the report’s authors write, “the impact of voting bans on people with felony convictions should be front and center in the debate.”
As we’ve previously reported in one of our podcast episodes:
Disenfranchisement laws are among the oldest forms of voter suppression in the country. It’s also one of the rare barriers to voting that intersects with America’s broken criminal justice system—a system that disproportionately incarcerates Black and Brown citizens at higher rates than whites. As the country’s prison population soared beginning in the ’70s, with the rekindling of the racist war on drugs, so to has the number of disenfranchised voters.
The connection between felony disenfranchisement and the rise in incarceration is clear. As law-and-order politics took hold in the 1970s and arrests began to increase, buoyed by the War On Drugs, the number of people who later became disenfranchised skyrocketed.
According to The Sentencing Project’s report, from 1976 to 2016 the number of people who were disenfranchised more than doubled, from 1.2 million to 3.3 million. From there, the disenfranchised population soared to record highs before peaking at 6.1 million in 2016.
No other group in the United States is prohibited from participating in elections at such a massive scale.
And you can’t tell the story of felony disenfranchisement without highlighting the incredible racial disparities.
Here is just some of what the report revealed:
One in 19 Black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised.
5.3 percent of Black Americans have their voting rights stripped, compared to 1.5 percent of the adult non-African American population.
One in 10 Black Americans is disenfranchised in eight states: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.
This news comes as many states in recent years have restored voting rights by reforming their respective laws. A flurry of actions came in the last two years alone, with Connecticut, New York, Washington, and California restoring voting rights for people on parole. In 2020, Washington, D.C. joined Maine and Vermont in allowing people currently incarcerated to vote; Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds used an executive order to expand voting rights to people who served their sentences; and New Jersey restored voting rights to people who have left prison.
Florida, home to the largest disenfranchised population, was set to see the largest expansion of voting rights in modern history following a widely supported voter referendum in 2018. However, the Republican-led legislature defied the will of the people a year later and passed a law that prohibited voting restoration until someone with a felony conviction paid all court fees and court-mandated restitution—what critics of the law said amounts to a modern-day “poll tax.”
Learn More About Felony Disenfranchisement
We have a full episode explaining the origins of felony disenfranchisement laws—or what our guests call a “civil death sentence.”
Featured in this episode is Desmond Meade, a voting rights activist and executive director of the nonprofit Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Meade, who was also fighting for his own rights after a felony conviction, was one of the leading figures pushing for Amendment 4, the referendum later approved by nearly 65 percent of Floridians.
“At the heart of it, it’s about forgiveness, redemption, and restoration,” Meade told us.
Thanks for reading News Beat! Subscribe to our podcast and Substack for free to receive new posts, episodes, stories, and more!
Listen to News Beat on your favorite podcast app. The button below will enable you to subscribe wherever you listen to pods. Please also share our Substack to help build this community and support independent media and indie hip-hop.
News Beat is a multi-award-winning podcast brought to you by Morey Creative Studios and Manny Faces Media.
Audio Editor/Sound Designer/Producer/Host: Manny Faces
Editor-In-Chief/Producer: Christopher Twarowski
Managing Editor/Producer: Rashed Mian
Episode Art: Jeff Main
Executive Producer: Jed Morey