Near the center of protests in Ferguson, Mo., by the makeshift memorial for 18-year-old Michael Brown, citizens are being invited to participate in another form of civic engagement: the ballot box.
While not a cure-all, voting is one of the most basic facets of democratic participation. It gives us a chance to channel both our rage and our hope into a concrete action, and to see that action reflected in our community’s leaders and laws. As Americans, our voting rights are an engrained, national reminder that every one of us is an equal citizen.
But for many Missourians, as well as Americans watching from afar, this form of expression is also policed. As many as 4.4 million American citizens live, work, and raise families in our communities, but because of a conviction in their past are still denied the right to vote. Nationwide, state felony disenfranchisement laws are firmly rooted in the Jim Crow era. Many criminal disenfranchisement laws were enacted alongside poll taxes and literacy tests to keep African Americans from voting. The intended effects of these laws continue to this day: an estimated 3 in 10 African American males will lose voting rights in their lifetime.
The reach of these laws extends to the community of Ferguson, which is 67 percent African American. Missouri bars people serving their terms of probation and parole from voting. There are nearly 75,000 disenfranchised citizens living and working in communities in the Show me State, and like in the rest of the country, the harmful effects of the current law disproportionately impact people of color. One third of the total disenfranchised Missouri population is African American, though they comprise only about eleven percent of the state population. For many Ferguson residents, the new push for voter registration drives only further alienates them from the political system.
Jelani Cobb writes that in Ferguson,
Six black men I spoke to, nearly consecutively, pointed to Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws as part of the equation. “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register,” one said.
Nearly 7 percent of African Americans in Missouri are barred from the vote because of a criminal conviction. But if anything, this underestimates the force of denying a portion of the community their voting rights in a place like Ferguson. Evidence suggests that the effects of disenfranchisement bleed into the surrounding population. One study found that African Americans in communities with harsh felon disenfranchisement laws who themselves had not been incarcerated still experienced decreased turnout levels. This makes sense: voting is in many ways a communal activity, and when a neighbor or family member cannot participate, it shakes our fundamental faith that the government truly represents us.
In Ferguson, the disparities of participation in recent elections show that this faith has been shaken. Just 6 percent of eligible black voters cast a ballot in the 2013 municipal elections, compared to 17 percent of white voters. If we are serious about giving the community of Ferguson a fair say in the workings of our government, Missouri’s policies have to change. After the horrific events of the last few weeks, allowing this form of political expression can help restore faith in our political system’s ability to protect us.
This week, President Obama asked us to “seek out our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment.” Wanting to have a voice in the laws that govern us and our communities is part of that shared humanity.