In a speech he made on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for the states to repeal their laws that prohibit a convicted felon’s right to vote. There are very important political reasons why laws that bar a convicted felon’s voting rights should be repealed, and I write about those political reasons below. But when I learned what Mr. Holder said earlier this week, I first thought, how many think that a convicted felon never has, never will and never should have the right to vote? I grew up thinking that convicted felon NEVER has the right to vote. For a while, I practiced law thinking that same thing. They didn’t teach us that in law school. So first, a brief civics lesson.
The right to vote in any election, state or federal, is governed by the laws of the state in which the voter resides. The only way to gain access to a voting booth, whether to vote for the President of the United States, a representative or a senator, a governor or mayor, is by registering to vote. The same goes if you want to vote for your governor or mayor. But some states have permanently banned a convicted felon from voting.
In Arkansas, we are a little more enlightened. In our state, after a person has been released from parole or probation, after all fines, court costs and any other costs paid, a convicted felon can re-register to vote. Section 11(c)(2)(A) of the 51st Amendment to the Arkansas Constitution says, “It is the duty of any convicted felon who desires to register to vote to provide the county clerk with proof from the appropriate state or local agency, or office that the convicted felon has been discharged from probation or parole, has paid all probation or parole fees, or has satisfied all terms of imprisonment, and paid all applicable court costs, fines, or restitution. Other parts of Section 11(c) speak to other requirements but you get the gist.
So, Arkansas is more enlightened but not Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia. These states prohibit our country’s 5.8 million felons from voting for President of the United States, a U.S. Senator or the governor of their state. And of the 5.8 million convicted felons in America, about 2.6 million are African-Americans. 2.6 million people of a separate and distinct class. “Those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives. They could not vote” as General Holder said.
Felony convictions, in both state and federal courts, fall disproportionately upon African-Americans. Prison sentences fall disproportionately upon African-Americans. Please don’t tell me, “If they don’t wanna do the time, don’t do the crime” because I’m gonna tell you that some laws, and as we have seen, federal drug laws do punish differently. A federal prison sentence for cocaine powder (the drug favored by upper-middle class whites) is very lighter than a prison sentence for crack cocaine (the drug favored by poor blacks).
As General Holder said in his speech last Tuesday, “criminal justice and civil rights” go hand-in-hand. Those people that reside in those states that disallow convicted felons the right to vote for the elected officials that say what streets get repaired, how high a tax on food and clothing, and what is a crime deny one of the most important rights of all.
If you agree, you might want to read the book, “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.