There are all sorts of tactics that have been employed over the years to suppress the votes of “the other guys.” Recently, those efforts have mostly come from the GOP, but historically, both parties have engaged in them–just as both parties do (and continue to) gerrymander when they control a state legislative chamber.
I’ve recently noted that the efforts to cast doubt on voting by mail are partly motivated by the fact that vote-by-mail defeats many of the time-honored ways to suppress minority votes–and provides a paper trail.
One of the least commented methods of suppressing minority votes–and one of the most effective–is felon disenfranchisement. It is widespread–a number of states forbid ex-offenders from casting ballots–and superficially, at least, it’s race-neutral. For citizens unaware of the over-incarceration of African-Americans during America’s drug war (laid out in indisputable terms by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow), felon disenfranchisement is simply a lingering, perhaps overly-harsh “law and order” punishment of those who have broken the law.
Two recent court decisions–one honorable, one definitely not–make the implicit, explicit.
In North Carolina, a court struck down an effort to keep ex-offenders from casting ballots, holding that the state could not disenfranchise citizens who owe fines, fees, and other debts from a felony conviction. As the linked article about the ruling noted,
Many felon disenfranchisement rules, including North Carolina’s, are rooted in overt white supremacy. After Reconstruction, racist Democrats in the state sought to revoke Black citizens’ suffrage. They accomplished this task, in part, through vague criminal laws that stripped convicted felons of their civil rights—then enforced these laws disproportionately against Black people. North Carolina’s current statute is rooted in an 1877 law spearheaded by a representative who later presided over the lynching of three Black men. At the time, Democrats argued that felon disenfranchisement was necessary to stop “the honest vote of a white man” from being “off-set by the vote of some negro.” Its purpose, alongside other Jim Crow measures like the literacy test, was to “secure white supremacy.”
The law continues to work as intended, as documented in an expert report by University of North Carolina professor Frank R. Baumgartner. Today, Black North Carolinians represent 22 percent of adults and 42 percent of the disenfranchised. Black residents are denied the right to vote at three times the rate of white residents in 44 counties. The state’s disenfranchisement regime targets two groups of people: those on probation or parole, and those who’ve completed their full sentence but still owe court debt. Notably, judges may extend an individual’s probation or send them back to prison because they haven’t paid off these fines and fees.
Meanwhile, in Florida, immediately after a majority of citizens voted to overturn that state’s felony disenfranchisement law, Republican legislators passed a measure that limited that disenfranchisement to those who had managed to pay off all court costs. A federal judge ruled that the restriction was an unconstitutional poll tax. But last Friday, an appeals court narrowly overturned that decision.
The court’s 6-4 ruling dealt a significant blow to civil rights groups that have fought to expand the voter rolls with hundreds of thousands of people who had completed prison time and parole for felony convictions. It also undermined what had seemed like a major referendum victory in 2018 and served as another reminder of the decisive role that a slew of legal cases could play before the presidential election.
There are lessons here, for those of us willing to learn them.
First, racial animus dies hard, and it lurks in places we seldom think to look. Second, the competence and integrity of the men and women who occupy the nation’s bench–who act as custodians of the Constitution and defenders of the Rule of Law–is critically important.
And third, the future of both that bench and this nation depends upon massive turnout for “blue no matter who” on (or preferably before) November 3d.