Hillary Clinton gave a powerful and historic speech last Thursday on voting rights at Howard University. She called voting a “fundamental American principle,” and put forward many great policy proposals, including repairing the Voting Rights Act, instituting mandatory early voting, and establishing automatic voter registration.
Clinton also correctly mentioned the overt racial dynamics at play and the discrimination blacks and other minorities face at the voting booth.
However, she barely mentioned the humongous number of disenfranchised felons in America – and offered no solutions.
The numbers are stark. Six million Americans are currently disenfranchised in the mass incarceration system. Two million of those are currently under parole or probation, and another 2.6 million are still disenfranchised even after the full completion of their sentences. (Twelve states have post-sentence restrictions.)
Felon disenfranchisement laws first came into existence around the Civil War. They were used in conjunction with poll taxes and grandfather clauses to effectively prevent African-Americans from voting. Every state that was in the Confederacy now has the strictest disenfranchisement laws. African Americans are four times as likely as whites to lose their voting rights through felony charges – the vast majority of which are nonviolent crimes.
Any serious voting rights agenda must include the most direct assault on voting rights. Felon voter disenfranchisement has a far larger impact on election day than voter ID laws. One study published in Perspectives on Politics found that prison disenfranchisement has likely altered the outcome of several Senate races, and would have easily changed the presidential election results in 2000.
Clinton has been partially supportive of expanding ex-offender voting rights in the past. As a senator, she sponsored the Count Every Vote Act, which would have expanded voting rights to felons who have completed their prison, parole, and probation sentence. She has recently talked about expanding voting rights to “ex-felons,” but has given few specifics on the matter.
Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, says much of the political and editorial language surrounding the topic is “confusing” and “imprecise.” He thinks talking about “ex-felons” probably means the 2 million Americans who have completely served their sentence.
“But I think we need to go much further,” Mauer said in a phone interview with CAF. “It is an important step, but leaves nearly 4 million disenfranchised.”
In a policy brief, The Brennan Center for Justice also encourages policies that go further, urging automatic post-incarceration voting rights restoration. This would re-enfranchise over 4 million Americans.
Felon re-enfranchisement is a smart policy move. A 2009 study published by the American Society of Criminology found that extending the vote to non-incarcerated felons effectively extends democracy, reduces racial disparities at the ballot box, enhances public safety, and is consistent with international practices.
It is also consistent with public opinion. Polling by Scholars Strategy Network showed 60 percent support allowing parolees to vote, and 68 percent support allowing those on probation to vote. Fully four in five Americans support allowing those who have completely served their sentence to vote.
Politicians have started to pick up on these sentiments on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is pushing for Kentucky to loosen its disenfranchisement laws. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech in support of voting rights for felons released from prison. And a bill that would have done just that was introduced in the Senate this past March, garnering 10 co-sponsors.
Part of Clinton’s caution may be due to her dark history on the matter. She proudly supported many of the policies of her husband and former president that created our mass incarceration system, including mandatory minimums and the myth of “superpredators.” Despite her recent push to dismantle that system, Bill Clinton still argues that the policies were well-intentioned and a success – despite the fact there is no correlation between prison population and the crime rate.
As Mauer put it, “we’re glad that she’s seen the light” when it comes to the horrors of mass incarceration and disenfranchisement. But if Clinton truly believes that “every citizen has the right to vote” and that voting is a “fundamental American principle,” as she proclaimed in her speech, then she needs to back up her highest rhetoric by hitting the issue head-on, not a side-step.
Clinton should support the “Right to Vote” amendment, which would automatically guarantee every U.S. citizen their fundamental American principle. And she needs to talk honestly about felon disenfranchisement, instead of leaving the policy specifics to twits.