MYTH: Ex-Felons Should Be Ineligible to Vote

Many of us recall the purge of “felons” from the voter rolls in Florida in 2000 from a list that turned out to be egregiously flawed and served to disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters. In addition, however, the 1975 report from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on the Voting Rights Act singled out the ongoing problematic practice of purging voter rolls and deleting eligible voters in the process. The 1981 report documented continuing problems with purging and requiring re-registration. In the mid-1970s, the United States attorney general objected under Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act to purging and re-registration laws in Texas and Mississippi.

Picture by x1klima

These practices led in part to the National Voter Registration Act that, among many other things, requires election administrators to follow certain procedures when “cleaning” the voter rolls, including banning such purging within 90 days of an election. In 2012, state elections officials are scrambling to purge their lists just before the election, using opaque matching rules and a variety of potentially flawed databases, claiming the rolls are full of noncitizens. Meanwhile, studies have shown that noncitizen registration is rare, and noncitizen voting even rarer. Noncitizen voting by those who knew it was impermissible is virtually nonexistent.

Laws disenfranchising felons and ex-felons, many passed post-Reconstruction, were sometimes designed with the purpose of disenfranchising African American voters, and often were implemented to do so. By 1920, almost every state had a law on the books disenfranchising men who had been criminally convicted of something. In most parts of the country, the laws applied only to those who had committed a felony, but in the South, the laws at the turn of the century specifically targeted violations that African Americans were thought by politicians to be more likely to be found guilty of.

Republicans overwhelmingly reject providing voting rights for ex-felons who have served their time—of which there are millions, disproportionately African American, Latino, and poor. Some politicians have stated blatantly the partisan interest in maintaining felon disenfranchisement laws. “‘As frank as I can be,’ said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors in 2003, ‘we’re opposed to [restoring voting rights after completion of sentence] because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.’”

Republican U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has persistently opposed federal legislation extending the right to vote in federal elections to all former felons who had completed their sentences. “‘States have a significant interest in reserving the vote for those who have abided by the social contract,’ Senator McConnell explained. ‘Those who break our laws should not dilute the vote of law abiding citizens.’” At the same time, we know that McConnell would have likely lost a tightly contested 1984 U.S. Senate race if it weren’t for Kentucky’s ban on voting by former felons.

Most recently, Republican governor Rick Scott of Florida last year reversed the reforms of his predecessor, forcing any former felon who wanted to regain voting rights to appeal directly to the governor after a several-year waiting period. In Iowa, the new Republican governor also rescinded the executive order of his predecessor, making it a nightmare process for an ex-felon to regain his right to vote.

This is the fourth part of a series on the history of voter suppression. Tova Andrea Wang's new book, the Politics of Voter Suppression, is out now.