Who can’t vote?: A look at the nation’s disenfranchised
The U.S. has seen a gradual enfranchisement of certain groups since its founding. Despite this, there are still Americans who are denied the right to vote.
Associate News Editor
When the United States was founded, only white, property-owning males could vote. Since then, the country has seen a gradual enfranchisement of certain groups within its population.
In 1870, the right to vote was extended to Black men, in 1920 women gained the vote, in 1964 poll taxes were outlawed and in 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Despite this narrative of progress, however, there are still Americans who are denied the right to vote.
Some, such as political science professor David Redlawsk, argue that despite its past trends in increasing voting population, the U.S. is no longer following that trajectory of enfranchisement.
“It’s not clear as a country that we remain committed to expanding the franchise right now,” Redlawsk said. “And in fact, there’s some evidence that there are a lot of efforts to limit or to at least make it difficult.”
While voting laws differ by state, across the country, the vote is refused to non-citizens, people with felony convictions (specific laws vary by state), people who are mentally incapacitated (specific laws vary by state) and, specifically for president in the general election, those residing in U.S. territories.
For example, according to its elections website, Delaware in particular judges mental incompetency as being “specific finding in a judicial guardianship or equivalent proceeding, based on clear and convincing evidence that the individual has a severe cognitive impairment which precludes exercise of basic voting judgment.”
The right to vote for convicted felons also varies across the country. In Virginia, Iowa and Kentucky, anyone with a felony conviction is permanently disenfranchised. Maine and Vermont, on the other hand, do not deny the right to vote to felons, even when they are in prison. According to an investigation done by the ACLU, a total of approximately 5.85 million Americans with felony convictions are prevented from voting.
If a Delaware resident is convicted of a felony and has completed their sentence, the right to vote is restored unless that felony was a “disqualifying felony.”
The state’s elections website identifies these “disqualifying felonies” as “murder or manslaughter,” with the exception of “vehicular homicide,” an “offense against public administration involving bribery or improper influence or abuse of office” or a felony “consisting of sexual offense.”
In 2018, Florida changed its constitution to one that more closely mirrors Delaware’s laws. It now allows its residents with felony convictions — aside from murder and sexual offenses — to vote. Criminal justice professor Cresean Hughes pointed to Florida as being an example of the power that states have to define the voting rights of its citizens who have felony convictions.
“I think it’s difficult to have the conversation without thinking through, kind of, the political ramifications or the political context,” Hughes said. “Because, you know, who’s the governor is going to matter, who’s in the state legislature, what the state legislature looks like; that’s going to matter.”
Hughes also stated that the states that have the most limitations on voting rights on previously incarcerated people are typically Republican-dominated states. In conjunction with that idea, Hughes discussed that poorer communities of color tend to make up a large percentage of prison populations — a practice that began directly after the Civil War and continued through the era of mass incarceration in the 1990s until today.
As an example, Hughes mentioned Mississippi, a state that is 35% to 40% Black, yet has a vast majority of white elected officials.
“Given that percentage in a state like Mississippi, you know, there has to be something happening there,” Hughes said. “And I’m not saying that felon disenfranchisement is the only thing, but I’m certain that’s playing a role in what the political makeup — what the political power structure looks like, in a state like Mississippi.”
As a result of continued control by groups which benefit from denying convicted felons the vote, states such as Mississippi would, according to Hughes, likely push back against the enfranchisement of those formerly incarcerated.
“Very much like our current climate, I think [voting rights for convicted felons has] become extremely politicized in a way that sort of misses the cost and consequences of not allowing people to vote and participate in the democratic process, and … it’s missed in that back and forth,” Hughes said.
Sociology professor Chrysanthi Leon also discussed the politicization of criminal disenfranchisement. She said that while there is a common belief that convicted felons would vote for Democratic candidates, she is not certain that this is the case.
“I think there’s a fear that if we let formerly incarcerated people vote that everything will swing blue,” Leon said. “And that may be the case, but I actually think we would need to research that more substantially before we use that as a reason to continue denying people the vote.”
Leon works in a women’s prison as a part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which enables her to teach a class comprised of half university students and half incarcerated students. Recently, she conducted a class in which she asked her students what they would like to “put on trial.” One student brought up the issue of whether those with criminal records should be denied the right to vote.
“We really couldn’t come up with a defense of that,” Leon said. “It really doesn’t make any sense why there would be such differences state to state.”
Leon also discussed the importance of voting in the process of fully integrating back into normal life after being imprisoned.
“My incarcerated students in this [Inside-Out] class are not getting out anytime soon,” Leon said. “But they think about what it’ll be like when they do get out, and they think about all the things that they’re going to do to prove themselves as people who are worthy of reentering society. And they are saying if we’re going to do all this work, to show that we have paid our debt to society, and that we are supporting ourselves and our families and we’ve kind of made good — to then be told, we’re not citizens … is really painful.”
According to Hughes, civic participation is important in the process of reintegration. He said there are a lot of criminological theories available that find that the inability to vote actively “pulls people away from conventional society.”
“My understanding of punishment, at least in terms of what we say it should be, is, you know, a punishment for what you did,” Hughes said. “But we’re not casting you away; we’re not throwing you away; we’re not saying you’re not worthy, or that you don’t deserve to be able to come back into the fold, but our actions and our policies have taken a very different approach.”
Disenfranchisement does not just encompass the four groups outlined by the government. More lesser known methods exist that prevent specific people from having their votes count. Many believe that this has occurred in the form of gerrymandering, voter ID laws, long lines at polling places and locations of polling places and drop-boxes for mail-in ballots.
“What the states have been allowed to do, and particularly with the Supreme Court rulings on the Voting Rights Act and some of the rulings we’re seeing right now, is make [voting] more difficult,” Redlawsk said. “And so, the state legislature determines that it wants to be more difficult — for example, put in a voter ID law that limits the kind of ID that counts, or limits the number of polling places, or any one of a number of other things. Those at least so far appear to be accepted by the Supreme Court, and therefore chip away at basically the right to vote.”
In Delaware, residents are not required to produce any form of ID to vote in person. Additionally, those who have voted before and are now voting by mail also are not required to provide ID.
However, if voting by mail, first-time voters who did provide ID at the time of registration must provide a photocopy of a form of ID. Identification, in this case, can be in the form of a photo ID with an individual’s name and photograph, or a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or via a government document displaying name and address.
Other states are far stricter as to what counts as an ID. Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin all require a strict photo ID — such as a driver’s license, identity card or passport — which, for some groups, is more difficult to access.
“It puts an extra burden on people, for example, for whom it would be difficult to get out to the driver’s license office — physically disabled folks for example,” Redlawsk said. “And there’s also just empirical evidence, research evidence … that very restrictive voter ID laws make it difficult for folks — particularly those with lower income, lower education, less access to transportation — to actually get the specific ID that they must have to vote.”
In addition to strict voter ID laws, Hughes brought up the location of drop boxes for ballots as being another method with which voters, particularly those from poorer communities of color, have been disenfranchised.
As an example, Hughes pointed to Harris County, the location of Houston, Texas. Harris County currently harbors a population of about 4,713,325 residents.
There is only one drop box in Harris County, located at NRG Arena. Within the context of the pandemic, the existence of a single option for ballot drop-off makes it more difficult for those without access to transportation to access it.
“Houston is one of the biggest cities in the United States, and for that particular county to only have one dropbox is just insane,” Hughes said. “And then in addition to that, the economic circumstances of some people in that county … I could very well see someone just say ‘it’s just going to be too hard to vote this year.’”
Both Hughes and Redlawsk agree that even the more “covert” forms of disenfranchisement have become politicized.
“The Republican Party has a program designed to make it more difficult to vote,” Redlawsk said. “Now, their argument is one about protecting the sanctity of the vote and minimizing fraud.”
Redlawsk also said that within the past 20 years, the demographics of the country have shifted away from favoring the policies of the GOP.
“There’s really two choices [for the Republican Party],” Redlawsk said “One is you can adjust your policy positions, the other is you can try to make it more difficult for people to vote. And at least at the moment, the Republican Party in general has tended in that latter direction — the second choice.”
Within the last 20 years, the implementation of strict voter ID laws has become more prevalent. In 2005, Georgia and Indiana passed the first of these laws, confirming Redlawsk’s assessment that the U.S. is no longer on a strictly linear trend of expanding voting rights.
“I think overall, and kind of with disenfranchisement of individuals who’ve been incarcerated, and just people generally; citizens generally, we should be making it easier to vote and not harder,” Hughes said.