A Record Number Of Black People Can’t Vote Due To Convictions

There are about 6.1 million people in the U.S. who can't vote due to a felony conviction. 2.2 million of them are African American

Disenfranchisement rates vary among ethnic groups — (Dreamstime)
Oct 06, 2016 at 3:39 PM ET

More convicted felons will be barred from participating in the 2016 election than any other election in U.S. history, and a wildly disproportionate number of them are African American, according to a study released on Thursday.

In all, there are about 6.1 million U.S. citizens who will not be able to vote due to a felony conviction, according to data from The Sentencing Project, a non-profit advocacy organization aimed at reforming the criminal justice system. That’s a huge bump from to the 1.17 million disenfranchised felons in 1976, as the so-called “War on Drugs” began its blitzkrieg on low-level addicts, many of whom were African American.

Of those 6.1 million ineligible to vote in the 2016 election, more then 2.2 million are African American, according to the data.

“Disenfranchisement rates vary tremendously across racial and ethnic groups, such that felony disenfranchisement provisions have an outsized impact on communities of color,” the study’s authors found.

Given those numbers, one in 13 African Americans who would otherwise be eligible to vote are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. That’s more than 7.4 percent of the total population of adult African Americans, a rate that is four times higher than the 1.8 percent of non-African Americans disenfranchised due to a conviction.

The laws dictating when a convicted felon can apply to have their voting rights re-established vary from state to state. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no restrictions on when a convicted felon can have their voting rights restored—convicts in those states can vote while in prison. Other states prohibit only felons in prison from voting, while some states include those in prison and those who are on parole or probation. Twelve states, primarily in the south, won’t even restore a felon’s voting rights after he or she has completed their sentence (prison time and parole or probation), and are no longer in the criminal justice system. In other words, they’ve settled up on their debt to society but they still can’t vote.

Florida is one of the 12 states that won’t restore a felon’s voting rights even after their sentence has been completed. It also accounts for more than a quarter of the six million felons nationally who are not permitted to vote. Florida is also one of four states that have significantly higher percentages of disenfranchised African Americans than the national average—in those states, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, the percentages of voting-age African Americans disenfranchised due to a felony conviction are 21 percent, 26 percent, 21 percent, and 22 percent, respectively.

One of the study’s authors, Christopher Uggen, a sociology and law professor at the University of Minnesota, co-authored a paper in 2003 arguing that laws barring felons from voting have racist roots dating back to the colonial period. The true spike, however, came in the 1860s and 1870s, after the Fifteenth Amendment granted African Americans the right to vote. White people saw African Americans as a threat, and took measures to block their trip to the ballot box.

In the paper, Uggen and his co-authors mention Alabama’s 1901 constitutional convention, at which the state’s felony disenfranchisement law was amended to include misdemeanors and crimes of “moral turpitude.” John B. Knox, who led the convention, said in his opening remarks that “manipulation of the ballot box” was justified to thwart “the menace of negro domination.”