Disenfranchisement

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Disenfranchisement is generally defined as the practice of “depriving of a franchise” (or legal right), or depriving someone of some privilege, participatory right, voice, or immunity in a given society.

Specifically, it is the practice by governments in all areas of a democracy (local, municipal, state, and federal) of removing, either by legal or illegal means, a citizen’s right to vote, or rendering their vote or voice ineffective. Historically there have been two forms of disenfranchisement, direct and indirect.

Euphemistically, disenfranchisement describes the condition of those existing outside the mainstream of society who feel themselves shut out of the same opportunities and privileges granted to others: prosperity, property, credit, access, audience, mates. Generally these include minority (by race, class, and sexual orientation) populations, and those living alternative or counter-cultural lifestyles or having what are viewed by the mainstream as "radical" or "extreme" belief systems. The highest concentration of disenfranchised are found in the ex-offender population, where a prior arrest and/or conviction--even for a minor crime--can forever alter the course of one's life.

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Direct disenfranchisement

Direct disenfranchisement is made up of actions that explicitly prevent people from voting or having their votes counted. In the United States, this practice was put into widespread use beginning at the end of the Civil War with the passage of the 15th Amendment (which prohibited the explicit disenfranchisement of any citizen on the basis of race or prior enslavement) and continued up until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Southern states that were former members of the Confederacy “devised an array of alternative techniques designed to disenfranchise blacks and, to a lesser extent, poor whites.”[1] Some of the techniques of direct disenfranchisement included threats and violence against blacks and poor whites, fraud such as ballot box stuffing or ballot tampering, poll taxes, literacy tests, and restrictive registration practices.

Indirect disenfranchisement

Indirect methods of disenfranchisement are used to prevent people's votes from having an impact on political outcomes. Examples of this include tampering with electronic vote totals on touch screen voting machines, hanging chads and other physical ballot anomalies, limited numbers of voting machines in poor neighborhoods, provisional ballots, gerrymandering, legal challenges, and the most pervasive of the post-Voting Rights Act era, felony disenfranchisement.

Felony disenfranchisement

Felony disenfranchisement is the practice by state governments of barring people convicted of a felony from voting, even after they have served their sentence and reentered society.

The roots of felony disenfranchisement laws can be traced back to ancient Rome:

“Disenfranchisement was commonly imposed on individuals convicted of "infamous" crimes as part of their "civil death", whereby these persons would lose all rights and claim to property. The practice of disenfranchisement was transplanted to America by English settlers.”.[2]

The philosophy behind felony disenfranchisement is that persons who commit felonies have broken the social contract, and have thereby given up their right to participate in a civil society. But opponents argue that so many felony charges, like drug possession, are victimless moral crimes that did not break the social contract, and that those who honor the terms of their punishment and serve their sentences (the ostensible "paying one's debt to society") or otherwise rehabilitate themselves should be permitted the opportunity to be re-enfranchised.

The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. reported in 2008 that about 5.3 million U.S. citizens are ineligible to vote due to felony disenfranchisement, 2 million of whom are African-American.[3] Of these, 1.4 million are African-American men, which translates into an incredible 13 percent of that population, a rate seven times higher than in the overall population. Forty-eight states have some form of felony disenfranchisement law. Most bar voting while prisoners are incarcerated, as well as while they serve probation or parole. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote from behind the walls, as does Canada and a number of other countries. Two other states, Kentucky and Virginia, impose a life-long denial of the right to vote to all citizens with a felony record.

Felony disenfranchisement was one of the central issues of the 2000 US presidential election. Then Florida governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris paid a database company to compile a master list of anyone who conceivably might have been a former felon. These names, and many similar to them, were then scrubbed from voter rolls. The final list contained the names 82,389 voters to purge from registries, but subsequent investigation called into question the authenticity of most of the names. Investigative reporter Greg Palast contends that "at least 94,000 [were] falsely accused of being felons without the right to vote.... Most of the innocents accused and abused were Black...I know, because I saw those state records with the carefully recorded "BLA" next to the voters' names."[4]

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Author: Charles Shaw