Voting Shouldn’t Be A Privilege

by Patrick Appel

Bouie examines the effects of felony disenfranchisement laws:

You can see the effects most clearly in black turnout rates. The nation’s 27 million African American voters are concentrated in the South and in Northern urban centers. Almost two-thirds—66 percent—voted in last year’s presidential election, giving African Americans higher turnout than any other racial group. But unlike with other groups, there was an odd gender gap: While more than 70 percent of black women voted, only 60 percent of black men went to the polls. The difference, according to Bernard Fraga of Harvard University, is explained entirely by the huge number of black men who are disenfranchised.

Supporters of disenfranchisement seek to purify the body politic, to punish wrongdoers who don’t “deserve” to vote. But this desire for punishment sidesteps whether felon disenfranchisement actually accomplishes anything of value. I’ve never seen good evidence that it does. Why the laws have survived legal scruitiny:

Most of the South’s restrictive voting laws were outlawed and overturned by the courts—but for the most part, felony disenfranchisement measures were not. In the 1974 case Richardson v. Ramirez, the Supreme Court ruled that denying felons the right to vote was permitted under Section 2 of the 14th Amendment. Section 2 spells out penalties for states that deny citizens the right to vote for any reason “except for participation in rebellion, or other crime.” Because of that exemption, the Court determined that—unlike with other voting laws—states did not have to prove they had a “compelling interest” in denying felons the vote, making these laws tough to challenge. Six years later, the justices set the bar even higher, ruling that it wasn’t enough for plaintiffs challenging the laws to prove that they had discriminatory results; they also had to prove discriminatory intent.

Meanwhile, Chait argues that voter ID laws, like felony disenfranchisement laws, are aimed at repressing the minority vote:

[I]f voter-I.D. laws were solely designed to prevent fraudulent voting, rather than to winnow minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies from the electorate, why would they be paired with a host of other measures that do not prevent voter fraud but do winnow Democrats from the electorate? In addition to imposing a photo-I.D. requirement, North Carolina Republicans reduced early voting periods (which minorities disproportionately use), prohibited voting stations from extending voting hours when lines are too long, prevented voters who mistakenly go to the wrong precinct from casting a provisional ballot, and a host of other measures.