Diane Dimond: The forgotton, now manipulated voting block
Have you decided who you will vote for in the upcoming presidential election — or whether you’ll vote at all? As you ponder, realize that nearly 6 million Americans will not be allowed to vote this November.
They are citizens who have been convicted of felonies and either live in a state that prohibits ex-cons from ever casting a ballot or a state that requires a years-long waiting period before they are allowed to step foot in a voting booth.
You might be thinking, isn’t voting a constitutional right? Nope. Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is a citizen explicitly guaranteed the right to vote. It is up to each state to set its own voting rules.
The experts who study this stuff call what’s happening to these 6 million citizens disenfranchisement, and they note it hits certain segments of the population particularly hard.
The folks at The Sentencing Project, for example, says that as the U.S. justice system has dramatically expanded over the last four decades, and “laws have significantly affected the political voice of many American communities.” In other words, swaths of urban neighborhoods, specifically those with high concentrations of imprisoned or formerly imprisoned African-Americans, now have a very diminished say in who our next commander in chief will be.
Among the latest statistics: 48 states ban voting for all incarcerated citizens. About a dozen of those states restrict ex-cons’ voting rights even after they have served their prison sentence and are no longer on probation or parole. Most of the other states make ex-felons wait between two and five years after they’ve completely passed through the judicial system before they can apply for the privilege. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, do not restrict felons’ voting rights — even if they committed a heinous crime and still live in prison.
Look, before you take out the crying towel, let’s remember that these citizens who have been stripped of their voting rights are in that situation because they put themselves there. Let’s not forget they were found guilty of committing serious crimes. (The fact that there may be some wrongful convictions involved is a topic for another column.) But that said, is it fair to disenfranchise millions of Americans from the election process after they have paid their debt to society?
The governor of Virginia thinks it isn’t. In the commonwealth of Virginia 1 in 4 African-Americans is permanently banned from casting a ballot due to restrictions on voting rights for those with convictions. Back in April, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order that instantly restored voting rights to 206,000 ex-cons who had completed their probation or parole obligations.
It’s worth noting that blacks have overwhelmingly voted Democratic for decades. Virginia is considered a swing state, and Gov. McAuliffe is a longtime fundraiser and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Restoring voting rights for 200,000 citizens just months ahead of the November election — voters believed to lean toward the Democratic Party, at that — didn’t sit well with Virginia Republicans. In July, they took the matter to the commonwealth’s Supreme Court, which ruled that Gov. McAuliffe had overstepped his clemency authority in seeking a blank reinstatement of voting rights. True to the twists and turns of politics, McAuliffe responded saying he will now use an autopen on high speed to issue clemency one case at a time.
Will Gov. McAuliffe’s machinations help Hillary Clinton win Virginia in November? Will the newly reinstated ex-convicts actually register and show up to vote? Are officials in other states — be they Republicans or Democrats — engaged in similar politically tinged intrigues? You can bet some are.