Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History

May 19, 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.