By Hannah Reilly
In contrast to most other democracies, many U.S. states apply a policy of felony disenfranchisement to individuals convicted of a crime. An estimated 6.1 million Americans are barred from casting a vote due to felony disenfranchisement. These policies disproportionately affect African Americans and contribute to the systemic oppression of black people in the United States. At a rate four times greater than that of all other Americans. one in every thirteen voting-age African Americans cannot vote due to a felony conviction. As the U.S. approaches conversations about race, discrimination, and privilege with new vigor in 2020, the enfranchisement of African Americans is of critical importance in the enduring fight for racial, social, and economic equality.
The use of disenfranchisement as a punitive measure traces back to a feature of English common law ominously dubbed “civil death.” Historically, depriving a person of their right to vote only applied in individual cases for serious or election-related crimes, not as an all-encompassing nationwide policy. It is without precedent for the United States to apply civil death as a form of social control that endures today.
Felony disenfranchisement did not act as a barrier to voting until the end of the Civil War when the expansion of suffrage to black men transformed the electorate’s racial demography. The 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery in 1865. It provided an exception, however, that allowed states to impose involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime. The exception allowed Southern states to lease prisoners to mines, plantations, and private railways. The profits were pocketed exclusively by states and private companies. Prisoners earned no pay for their work while facing deadly work conditions and inhumane treatment. This system, known as “convict leasing,” created a financial incentive for southern governments to increase the prison population and produce cheap labor for the South’s floundering economy. Lawmakers, especially in the South, implemented a number of laws that strategically targeted black citizens. The new criminal laws known as the Black Codes applied only to black people and were “essentially intended to criminalize black life.”
South Carolina adopted some of the harshest Black Codes. In addition to establishing a racially separate court system, it sanctioned drastically different punishments for white people and black people accused of the same crime. The code also prohibited black people from “possessing most firearms, making or selling liquor, and coming into the state without first posting a bond for “good behavior.” Also, blacks could not practice any occupation, except farmer or servant under contract, without getting an annual license from a judge.” Black Codes once again linked the oppression of black people to the prosperity of white southerners.
The implementation of Black Codes was coupled with sweeping disenfranchisement laws. Within a 15-year period after the Civil War, over a third of U.S. states enacted felony disenfranchisement laws. To ensure that disenfranchisement mainly affected African Americans, officials in the South imposed the laws as a punishment specifically for crimes they perceived as being committed more often by black people. The author of Alabama’s disenfranchisement provision “‘estimated the crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify sixty percent of Negroes,’ resulting in a policy that would disenfranchise a man for beating his wife, but not for killing her.” In time, states imposed disenfranchisement as a punishment for all felonies, rather than only select crimes. African Americans were stripped of their rights and therefore deprived of their ability to use the democratic process to generate change.
Selective enforcement by a white-controlled criminal justice system continued to ensure that “race-neutral laws” applied almost exclusively to black people. The Black Codes revived and legalized the exploitation of black people by directly linking them to the Southern economy. At least 90 percent of prisoners forced into convict leasing to provide cheap labor for Southern businesses were black. These factors quickly prompted a massive disparity in incarceration rates. In Alabama, nonwhite prisoners comprised 2 percent of the prison population in 1850. By 1870, the proportion had increased to 74 percent.
Researchers Christopher Uggen, Jeff Manza, and Angela Behrens determined that “the higher the proportion of nonwhite inmates in a given state’s prison population, the more likely that state was to adopt restrictive felon disenfranchisement measures.” These new laws enabled de facto slavery and allowed the government to continue enforcing racial hierarchies. With no rights and limited job opportunities in a corrupt system, black people were essentially forced to remain in a constant, oppressive cycle and stripped of any prospects for upward social and economic mobility.
The origins of disenfranchisement provisions stem from post-Civil War efforts to deny black people equal citizenship. These efforts are the basis for the mass incarceration and disenfranchisement that African Americans experience in the U.S. today. The war on drugs and the tough-on-crime approach adopted in the 1970s aggravated the existing racial disparities and extended them into the 20th and 21st centuries. By taking away felons’ political voice after rejoining civil society, felony disenfranchisement laws perpetuate an endless cycle of racism and inequality in the United States. The United States will never be truly equal until each citizen’s vote is counted.