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Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History

Key Fact: It wasn’t until the end of the Civil War and the expansion of suffrage to black men that felony disenfranchisement became a significant barrier to U.S. ballot boxes.

  • Erin Kelley
Published: May 9, 2017

The United States stands alone among modern demo­cra­cies in strip­ping voting rights from millions of citizens on the basis of crim­inal convic­tions. Across the coun­try, states impose vary­ing felony disen­fran­chise­ment policies, prevent­ing an estim­ated 6.1 million Amer­ic­ans from cast­ing ballots. To give a sense of scope — this popu­la­tion is larger than the voting-eligible popu­la­tion of New Jersey. And of this total, nearly 4.7 million are people living in our communit­ies — work­ing, paying taxes, and rais­ing famil­ies, all while barred from join­ing their neigh­bors at the polls.

This wide­spread disen­fran­chise­ment dispro­por­tion­ately impacts people of color. One in every 13 voting-age African Amer­ic­ans cannot vote, a disen­fran­chise­ment rate more than four times greater than that of all other Amer­ic­ans. In four states, more than one in five black adults are denied their right to vote. Although the data on Latino disen­fran­chise­ment is less compre­hens­ive, a 2003 study of ten states ranging in size from Cali­for­nia to Nebraska found that nine of those states “disen­fran­chise the Latino community at rates greater than the general popu­la­tion.”

While the origins of disen­fran­chise­ment can be traced back to early colo­nial law in North Amer­ica, and even farther back to ancient Greece, the punish­ment was typic­ally applied only in indi­vidual cases for partic­u­larly seri­ous or elec­tions-related crimes.

It wasn’t until the end of the Civil War and the expan­sion of suffrage to black men that felony disen­fran­chise­ment became a signi­fic­ant barrier to U.S. ballot boxes. At that point, two inter­con­nec­ted trends combined to make disen­fran­chise­ment a major obstacle for newly enfran­chised black voters. First, lawmakers — espe­cially in the South — imple­men­ted a slew of crim­inal laws designed to target black citizens. And nearly simul­tan­eously, many states enacted broad disen­fran­chise­ment laws that revoked voting rights from anyone convicted of any felony. These two trends laid the found­a­tion for the form of mass disen­fran­chise­ment seen in this coun­try today.