50th Anniversary of Voting Rights Act and Felony Disenfranchisement

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Fifty years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, millions of Americans are barred from voting by racially discriminatory felony disenfranchisement laws.

Signed on August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act banned poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other policies created in the 1860s and 1870s to bar African Americans from exercising the right to vote. State laws disenfranchising people convicted of a felony also proliferated during this period, especially in Southern states with the largest populations of African Americans, where lawmakers were explicit about the need to suppress the black vote.

For example, in 1901, Alabama amended its Constitution to expand disenfranchisement to all crimes involving “moral turpitude” — which applied to misdemeanors and even non-criminal acts - after the president of the constitutional convention argued the state needed to avert the “menace of Negro domination.” Alabama today has one of the nation's highest disenfranchisement rates: 15 percent of African American adults and nearly a third of African American men in Alabama have lost the right to vote.

Nationwide, nearly six million Americans are prevented from voting because of a past criminal conviction, including an estimated 4.4 million people who are no longer incarcerated. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 13 percent of African American men have lost the right to vote, which is seven times the national average. One in every 13 black adults is disenfranchised as a result of these laws.

Some states are using the Voting Rights Act's 50th anniversary to energize efforts to restore the voting rights of people with felony convictions. This year, 18 states -- up from 13 last year -- considered legislation to ease voting restrictions on felons; Wyoming was the only state to pass such a bill.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced yesterday that the state will restore the vote to 45,000 people with felony convictions who are on community supervision. “It is not lost on me that persons of color are disproportionately represented in our correctional institutions and that undeniable disparities exist,” he added.

In Virginia, where 1 in 5 black adults has been disenfranchised, Governor Terry McAuliffe last month restored voting rights to 8725 people convicted of felonies who had completed their sentences and he has streamlined the process to apply for restoration. Outstanding court costs, fees, and fines will no longer bar an applicant from having his or her rights restored. "We have forced these men and women to battle a complicated and bewildering tangle of red tape to reach the voting booth, and too often we still turn them away," he said in a written statement. "These men and women will still be required to pay their costs and fees, but their court debts will no longer serve as a financial barrier to voting, just as poll taxes did for so many years in Virginia."

In a speech earlier this year, former Attorney General Eric Holder condemned felony disenfranchisement laws as unnecessary, unjust, and counterproductive. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals," he said, "these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.” Restoring the right to vote to people who have served their sentences is an important part of a successful transition into society. Steve Lindly, deputy director for the Wyoming Department of Corrections, said his state’s new law would help people to be good citizens once they are released from prison.