The New York Times today calls for an end to the practice of disenfranchising former felons after they have completed their sentences, drawing attention to successful reenfranchisement efforts in Iowa and Nebraska. In the latter state, a strong bipartisan legislative coalition decisively overrode a governor's veto. The piece notes that the United States is virtually alone among industrialized nations in restricting the rights of former felons in many states, as well as the racialized history of these laws:
Like so much of what ails America, laws that strip felons of the right to vote are rooted in race. The South enacted these restrictions during the late 19th and early 20th century as part of a sweeping effort to limit black political power. This ugly legacy is painfully evident in statistics showing that black people account for about 40 percent of disenfranchisement cases and only about 12 percent of the population.
I wrote about the racial origins of U.S. felon disenfranchisement with Angie Behrens and Jeff Manza in a recent empirical study and a brief review piece. In my opinion, race continues to be important in efforts to both disenfranchise and to reenfranchise felons. In fact, Jeff and I argue that the reenfranchisement movement today gains its greatest moral authority from the civil rights movement. Attending meetings around the country on the issue, I can see that the leaders are those who have done time fighting for civil rights rather than the professors or liberal foundation folks. I think it is easy to paint activists as jumping on the issue as part of a crude grab for likely Democratic votes. But the civil rights and church leaders (many of whom have been around since before the Voting Rights Act) provide a pure and powerful reminder that the right to vote goes well beyond narrow partisan concerns. Often a small legislative caucus or church-centered group needs to "carry the flag." In Nebraska, for example, the Holy Family Catholic Church of Omaha helped organize and build momentum on the issue. In Connecticut, a Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus helped convince a split legislature and a Republican governor to permit probationers to vote. In short, a "color-blind" reform effort can come off as thin or self-serving. Instead, the racist history of the laws, the problem of contemporary black vote dilution, and the long struggle for civil rights more generally provides a strong moral backbone for reform efforts.