With the For the People Act passing in the House earlier this month, it’s now up to the Senate to get the democracy reform package past the finish line. What’s at stake? Automatic voter registration, an end to racial and partisan gerrymandering, and ethics reform in a legislative package that will add up to the biggest expansion to voting rights since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But few are talking about the criminal justice impacts of this package — like how it would restore voting rights to the over two million American citizens with prior felony convictions who are currently barred from the ballot box.
Our democracy was originally built to benefit the white wealthy few, leaving all others in the dust. This dynamic has bled into most of our formal institutions, including our criminal justice system. From the point of arrest, through conviction and sentencing, to release, the system discriminates against Black and Brown, poor, and disabled individuals, and those experiencing homelessness. Due to racial profiling and overpolicing, Black Americans bear the brunt of this conviction-based disenfranchisement. Nationally, 1-in-16 voting age Black citizens are disenfranchised. In some states, that rate can rise as high as 1-in-7.
Keeping those with prior convictions away from the ballot box has its roots in the Jim Crow era, when states actively tried to keep Black men from voting. But is the present truly all that different?
Just like with gerrymandering, felony disenfranchisement laws allow partisan minorities to maintain their majority legislative power on the local, state, and federal levels. It’s clear that keeping these Jim Crow-esque voting laws in place in the 21st century incentivizes those in power to continue criminalizing the communities that they don’t want voting.
Passing the For the People Act in the Senate and restoring voting rights to all formerly-convicted individuals living within our communities is how we start creating a truly representative, multiracial democracy.
Formerly-convicted individuals get counted in the census, hold jobs, raise families, and contribute to their communities — why shouldn’t they have a voice in their representative government? We learn and adopt voting practices from the people in our lives, so banning these parents, friends, and community mentors from the voting booth serves to discourage voting at large and keep democracy out of reach for generations.
And maybe it’s time to ask your legislators that very question: Why is our country systematically keeping people who are Black, Brown, poor, disabled, and experiencing homelessness away from the voting booth — and what does it intend to do about this injustice?