The Hidden History and Impact of Felon Voting Bans in the United States

Emma Wilson

Updated Tuesday, July 9, 2024 at 11:08 PM CDT

The Hidden History and Impact of Felon Voting Bans in the United States

The Origins of Felon Voting Bans

Many states adopted felon voting bans in the 1860s and 1870s, a period coinciding with the contentious debate over voting rights for black citizens. Scholars have traced the origins of these laws to racial discrimination, aiming to suppress the political power of African Americans. The surge of felony disenfranchisement laws after the Civil War was part of a broader strategy to disenfranchise blacks, often expanded in conjunction with the Black Codes.

These laws were not only racially motivated but also strategically designed to target African Americans disproportionately. Some states tailored felon voting bans to focus on minor crimes more common among black citizens, effectively curbing their voting rights. In states like Florida, railroads had their own police forces with full arrest authority, leading to felony trespassing charges for crossing tracks, primarily targeting black neighborhoods.

The War on Drugs and Its Consequences

The United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other country, a phenomenon largely fueled by the War on Drugs. A significant portion of people with felony convictions for petty, nonviolent drug charges belong to lower economic classes and tend to vote Democratic. Prohibiting felons from voting effectively reduces the number of opposition votes, benefiting Republicans.

For instance, Florida once had a blanket ban on ex-felons voting, which was overturned by a ballot measure. However, the Republican-dominated legislature then required ex-felons to pay court costs and fines before regaining their voting rights. This policy disproportionately affects those who cannot afford to pay these costs, further entrenching economic and racial disparities.

The Canadian Contrast

In stark contrast to the United States, Canada has taken a more inclusive approach to prisoner voting rights. In 1992, prisoners serving two years or less were granted the right to vote, and a Constitutional Charter case in 2002 extended this right to all prisoners. Canadian prisoners can vote in the region they are imprisoned, or for candidates in regions where their relatives live, where they were arrested, or any previous residence.

This inclusive approach supports the idea that prisoners are still part of society and deserve a voice in its governance. In contrast, felon disenfranchisement in the USA affects about 2% of the population, disproportionately impacting black communities and maintaining racial disparities in voting rights.

The Jim Crow Legacy

In the Jim Crow South, convicting as many black people as possible of a felony was a tactic to keep them from voting. Making a wide range of actions into felonies or enforcing felony-level laws unevenly targeted black neighborhoods and people, while similar offenses by white people were often ignored. The assumption behind disenfranchisement is that felons have broken the social contract and can't be trusted with the vote, a job, or an apartment.

This strategy of felony disenfranchisement blocked 4.6 million people from voting in the 2022 US elections. The enforcement of felony-level laws continues to be uneven, disproportionately affecting black communities and maintaining racial disparities in voting rights. For over 25 years, Republicans have worked on various fronts to suppress opposition votes, including through felon disenfranchisement.

Looking Ahead

Understanding the historical and ongoing impact of felon voting bans is crucial for addressing the racial and economic disparities they perpetuate. By examining the origins, motivations, and consequences of these laws, we can work towards a more equitable voting system that truly represents all citizens.

Noticed an error or an aspect of this article that requires correction? Please provide the article link and reach out to us. We appreciate your feedback and will address the issue promptly.

Check out our latest stories