A stunning proportion of black men in the United States will not be able to vote in the November elections because they have been convicted of a felony, according to a new report released today by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project. In seven states, a staggering one in four black men is permanently disenfranchised. In two states, Alabama and Florida, the ratio is one in three
If current trends continue, in a dozen states as many as 30-40% of the next generation of black men will permanently lose the right to vote.
Almost every state in the U.S. denies prisoners the right to vote. But fourteen states bar criminal offenders from voting even after they have finished their sentences. In these states, over one million ex-offenders are permanently disenfranchised.
Any felony can trigger disenfranchisement. A first-time young offender who pleads guilty to a single drug sale and is placed on probation can lose the right to vote for a lifetime.
"These people have paid their debt to society. It makes no sense to turn them into political outcasts," said Jamie Fellner, associate counsel at the New York-based Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. "No other country in the world takes away the right to vote for life."
"Fifty years after the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, it is tragic that every day more black citizens lose their voting rights," said Marc Mauer, report co-author and assistant director of The Sentencing Project, based in Washington. "This is not just a criminal justice issue, but one of basic democracy."
Nationwide, a total of 1.4 million black men—thirteen percent of all black men—cannot vote either because they are permanently disenfranchised ex-offenders, or because they are convicted felons currently in prison, on probation or on parole. The number of disenfranchised adults of all races is 3.9 million, three-quarters of whom are not in prison but are on probation or parole or have completed their sentences.
The report, Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States, is the first-ever state-by-state analysis of the impact of felony disenfranchisement laws.
The rate of disenfranchisement has grown higher in recent years as a result of harsh drug laws and mandatory sentencing requirements, which have sharply increased the number of offenders behind bars.
Disenfranchised ex-offenders can seek a gubernatorial pardon to restore their voting rights, but few have the information or resources needed to do so. In Virginia, for example, there are more than 200,000 ex-offenders, but in 1996 and 1997, only 404 regained their voting rights.
Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project call for an end to permanent disenfranchisement. They also urge Congress and state legislatures to ensure citizens convicted of a felony retain their ability to vote unless disenfranchisement is part of a court-imposed sentence for specified serious crimes. In addition, the two organizations urge the United Nations Human Rights Committee to address U.S. criminal disenfranchisement laws in light of international human rights treaties prohibiting unreasonable or racially discriminatory restrictions on the right to vote.
Human Rights Watch is an independent non-profit organization that uses research and advocacy to promote respect for internationally recognized human rights in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy.