It’s no secret that the U.S. bears the ignoble distinction of being one of the world’s strictest nations in its denial of the right to vote for citizens convicted of crimes. In fact, an estimated 6.1 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of “felony disenfranchisement” — laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes. But you have to wonder how anyone can honestly justify withholding such a fundamental right after a person who has done the crime has subsequently served their time?
Clearly, such restrictive policies border on the edge of “double jeopardy” — a fiercely defended constitutional right guaranteed to citizens in nations including the U.S., Canada and Mexico that prevents individuals from being “twice put in jeopardy.” So, what’s all the fuss and confusion about?
If returning citizens are denied the right to vote, even after completing their sentence, then ours is a nation led and supported by a gang of self-righteous hypocrites. Politicians often two-step or promenade around the issue in the heat of the election cycle, either demanding justice for all or desperately clinging to the status quo’s reliance on legislation that should have been overturned long ago. But for all their perfervid posturing and piety, most return to maintaining palpable silence, routinely dropping the ball after being comfortably ensconced in their seats of familiarity.
Truth be told, many victory speeches would never have been delivered as celebrated victors would have instead been trounced by their opponents if returning citizens, particularly those of color — had been allowed to cast their vote without today’s restrictive, unwarranted, antiquated, prejudicial laws that rule our states and therefore our nation.
Consider that in 1976, 1.17 million people were disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. In 1996, that number had risen to 3.34 million, rising further to 5.85 million in 2010. Florida accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s disenfranchised population (27 percent) — something that may change if 60 percent of the state’s voters chose to approve ballot question Amendment 4 that would invoke the automatic restoration of voting rights for those who have completed their sentences including parole or probation, excluding those convicted of murder or rape.
Maybe it’s just a “Black thing” — a “thing” that still endorses and allows the discrimination of the ancestors of this country’s former slaves — today’s African-American population — substantiated by statistics like the following: one-in-13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised — a rate four times greater than that of non-Blacks. Sorry, but if you’re Black and live in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee or the “commonwealth” of Virginia, the cards are stacked against you with African Americans being denied the right to vote at rates of 21, 26, 21 and 22 percent, respectively.
Going into Tuesday’s elections, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia laws did not allow convicted felons from retaining their right to vote until and unless a state officer or board restored voting rights. Consider the following example which illustrates and confirms the powerful impact that human whim and subjectivity still loom large over the issue of voting rights. In 2011, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet set a five-year minimum waiting period before former felons could even apply for the restoration of their civil rights. Since then, 30,000 have applied, 10,000 have pending cases and a paltry 3,000 have had their rights restored.
I don’t mean to burst your bubble but the pledge upon which our country was so proudly founded, “one nation, under God, indivisible with justice for all,” has lost its luster. As a Black man in America, I can only call it which it is — an empty, meaningless slogan replete with words of rhetorical brilliance but void of any semblance of truth. The real deal in the USA is this: with relative ease and little reluctance, we continue to allow millions of Americans, mostly Blacks, to be sentenced as lifelong, second-class citizens because of mistakes they made in the past — mistakes for which they have since served their time and for which they’ve presumably made efforts to atone.
God bless America. God have pity on America.