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Jim Crow in New York

  • Erika Wood
  • Liz Budnitz
  • Garima Malhotra
  • Charles Ogletree
Published: February 10, 2010

It is widely known and well docu­mented that Amer­ic­ans used the law to keep African-Amer­ican voters out of the elect­oral process through­out the Deep South. In the late 1800s, Jim Crow laws spread as part of a back­lash against the Recon­struc­tion Amend­ments – the Thir­teenth, Four­teenth, and Fifteenth Amend­ments of the U.S. Consti­tu­tion – which ended slavery, gran­ted equal citizen­ship to freed slaves, and prohib­ited racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting. The uproar worked its inten­ded purpose: large segments of the African-Amer­ican popu­la­tion were effect­ively removed from the demo­cratic process for sustained peri­ods, in some cases for life.

Less known is that crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws were part of the effort to main­tain white control over access to the polls. Between 1865 and 1900, a period when African-Amer­ican men were, theor­et­ic­ally, gran­ted greater voting rights state-by-state, and ulti­mately enfran­chised by the Fifteenth Amend­ment, 19 states passed crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws. By 1900, 38 states deployed some type of crim­inal voting restric­tion. These laws disen­fran­chised convicted indi­vidu­als long after their release from prison; many dictated that indi­vidu­als released from prison could not vote unless they had been pardoned by the governor.

States also adap­ted their crim­inal codes to punish those offenses with which they believed freed­men were likely to be charged, includ­ing bigamy, vagrancy, petty theft and burg­lary. Together, targeted crim­in­al­iz­a­tion and felony disen­fran­chise­ment stripped African Amer­ic­ans of their voting rights – and suppressed African Amer­ic­an’s polit­ical power for decades. The discrim­in­at­ory impact of these laws and prac­tices contin­ues to this day. Nation­wide, 8% of the African-Amer­ican popu­la­tion, or 2,000,000 African Amer­ic­ans, are disen­fran­chised. Given current rates of incar­cer­a­tion, approx­im­ately one in three of the next gener­a­tion of black men will be disen­fran­chised at some point during their life­time.

But Jim Crow was not confined to the South. He made his home in north­ern states as well, perhaps most notably in New York. Start­ing in the 18th century, the history of New York’s elec­tion laws follows this national narrat­ive. In fact, New York was the only state in the coun­try to require blacks – and only blacks – to own real prop­erty in order to qual­ify to vote.

New York’s crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment provi­sions, like those deployed in the South, were part of a concer­ted effort to exclude African Amer­ic­ans from parti­cip­at­ing in the polit­ical process. As African Amer­ic­ans gained free­dom with the gradual end of slavery, New York’s voting qual­i­fic­a­tions – includ­ing crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws – became increas­ingly more restrict­ive. A care­ful read­ing of New York’s consti­tu­tional history reveals that at the very time that the Four­teenth and Fifteenth Amend­ments forced the state to remove its nefar­i­ous prop­erty require­ments for African-Amer­ican voters, New York changed its law from allow­ing to requir­ing the disen­fran­chise­ment of those convicted of “infam­ous crimes.”

Today, New York’s crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment law is nearly identical to the provi­sion enacted 140 years ago. And the law contin­ues to have its origin­ally inten­ded effect: the wide­spread disen­fran­chise­ment of African Amer­ic­ans and other ethnic minor­it­ies. More than 108,000 New York­ers cannot vote because of a convic­tion in their past. Almost half of these disen­fran­chised citizens have completed their prison sentence and are living and work­ing in the community. Nearly 80% of those who have lost their right to vote under New York’s law are African-Amer­ican or Hispanic.