The New York Times: The Movement to End Racist Voting Laws


This year, state laws will bar nearly six million Americans with criminal convictions from voting in the presidential election. About 4.4 million of those are people who are not in prison but are still denied the right to vote.

While felon disenfranchisement laws have a history in many parts of the country, the harshest are found in the South, where they were central to the architecture of Jim Crow.

These laws date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when states in the former Confederacy — from Texas to Florida — set out to reverse the effects of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote. Felony voting restrictions formed the foundation of this effort, but the Southern states quickly reinforced barriers to voting with poll taxes, literacy tests, white-only primaries, registration restrictions, and exemptions for whites from measures created to keep blacks from voting.

Poll taxes and literacy tests were swept away after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But disenfranchisement of people with criminal records remained, and it is just beginning to attract the attention it deserves.

Last week, for example, Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a bill granting voting rights to people convicted of felonies who are being held in county-run jails. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is battling with the legislature over his plan for restoring the voting rights of tens of thousands of former inmates. Also last week, black citizens who were denied the vote in Alabama brought a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s disenfranchisement statute, a move that has started a broader discussion about the racist origins of such laws and their devastating effect on African-American communities.

In 1901, Alabama’s constitutional convention — convened for the purpose of establishing “white supremacy in this state” and staving off the “menace of Negro domination” at the ballot box — expanded an existing disenfranchisement law to include any offense “involving moral turpitude.” Among the disqualifying offenses were vagrancy, adultery and wife beating, which were more likely to be prosecuted against blacks.

In 1985, two people who lost voting rights for committing misdemeanors challenged the Alabama law. The Supreme Court ruled in that case, Hunter v. Underwood, that the “moral turpitude” provision was expressly intended to strip black citizens of the vote and was therefore unconstitutional. The Alabama Legislature revised the statute in 1996, keeping the moral turpitude language, but limiting its application to felonies.

The new suit challenges the law on several grounds. In addition to a charge of vagueness, the suit argues that the moral turpitude provision is unconstitutional because it was written with discriminatory intent. It also maintains that the 14th and 15th Amendments do not allow states to use criminal disenfranchisement to strip black people of the vote. Today, the statute disenfranchises about 15 percent of the state’s black voting-age population, compared with less than 5 percent for whites.

The way the law is administered magnifies the problem. Alabama has never determined which felonies are disqualifying — even though it requires citizens seeking to register to vote to declare under pain of perjury that they have not committed a disqualifying offense.

County registrars are left to decide eligibility to vote. This means that people who have voted for decades in one county can be denied registration when they move elsewhere. The state compounds this injury by requiring often desperately poor people to pay fines, court costs, restitution and other fees before they can vote. This is the modern-day equivalent of an illegal poll tax.

That many states continue to view people who have served time in prison as unfit to vote is a stain on the idea of democracy. The Alabama law and its history display this shameful truth.

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