April 9, 2004

Don't lock up the ballot box

For his California robbery conviction, Abran Ramirez served three months in jail, 10 years on parole, and a civil death sentence. As a consequence of a now 20-year-old conviction, Ramirez is prohibited from voting for life. Unfortunately, his is not an isolated case. Felony disenfranchisement prohibits 2 percent of Americans from voting; among black men, that rate skyrockets to 13 percent nationwide. In Florida, where such laws are especially strict, 31 percent of black men are disenfranchised—no small issue in the state that brought us that most notorious of gender-benders, the pregnant chad.

Even in states where ex-offenders may vote, lengthy re-enfranchisement processes often prevent them from doing so. In eight states, ex-offenders must seek an order from the governor; in two, the parole or pardons board must approve them. In Mississippi, barring a governor's executive order, an ex-convict must persuade a state legislator to introduce—and pass—a bill on his or her behalf. Such laws are rarely communicated to inmates with any clarity, leading few former inmates to reclaim their rights as citizens. Thus, in practice, felony disenfranchisement laws impact even more citizens than the considerable number officially barred from the ballot box—a staggering thought.

Yet felony voter disenfranchisement is an issue that rarely moves the political movers. Though 80 percent of Americans support enfranchising felons who've completed their sentences, the issue is foreign to the campaign trail—and that's a shame. In this Jim Crow artifact are embodied two of the U.S.'s antique devils: racism and virtue politics, operating, as they often do, in tandem. In March, The New York Times reported that some Florida offenders, most often drug traffickers and violent offenders, must undergo an investigation before their voting rights are reinstated. In the hearings, board members probed applicants as to their drug and alcohol usage, as well as to the attitude they took towards their crimes. "Blame-passing," in particular, could prove fatal to an ex-offender's case.

"This is politicians standing in and playing the role of virtuecrat," protests Representative Kendrick B. Meek of Miami—and rightly so. Ex-offenders are held to a standard of moral rectitude never levied upon other citizens. If it's permissible for some former felons to vote, and it's permissible for any boozing, buck-passing non-offender to do so, it's unclear why the two in tandem should bar one from voting. Via felony disenfranchisement and re-enfranchisement processes, state boards affect a moral poll tax that imperils the voting rights of all citizens. If a bad attitude disqualifies a felon from voting, why should petulant students be permitted to vote, or 'NSync fans, or, for that matter, drivers who leave their turn signals on? The review process, as currently exercised in Florida and other states, renders the vote not a right, but a privilege, attained by a sufficient level of ethical purity—at least, as defined by the state review board.

Of course it's understandable that individuals more readily enfranchise the penitent, when so empowered. Our sympathies legitimately fall with those who've sought to mend their ways—a former drug addict who now helps AIDS patients, for example, or a convicted drug trafficker turned model dad. But with equal frequency, individual sympathies are irrational, even misguided, as racial sentencing patterns attest: for every well-intentioned "virtuecrat," there's a racist, classist, or homophobe. Thus, in a society in which black men are arrested, convicted, and punished at higher levels than other people for similar crimes, felony disenfranchisement isn't merely illogical. It brings the worst of our inclinations to bear on citizenship itself, and replicates the existing failures of the criminal justice system in the electoral arena. Felony disenfranchisement laws were born out of Jim Crow. If we intend to end Crow's legacy of division and exclusion, they too must end with it.