Voter ID’s evil twin

Voter ID isn't conservatives' only strategy to thwart minority voters. Just as bad? Laws disenfranchising ex-felons

Topics: 2012 Elections, Voter ID, Crime, Florida,

Voter ID's evil twin (Credit: Jacom Stephens via iStockphoto/Salon)

Earlier this week, Pennsylvania Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, upheld Pennsylvania’s new law requiring voters to show a valid photo ID. He dismissed the plaintiff’s claim that the law will effectively disenfranchise tens of thousands of Pennsylvania voters, with a disproportionate impact on minorities, who are far less likely to have access to government identification. The law is now headed to the state Supreme Court.

The Pennsylvania ID law is the latest in a spate of similar laws across the country; since 2010, 11 states have passed laws that make it more difficult to vote. Republicans, who have led the charge, claim (without smirking) that they are preserving the integrity of the election system and heading off voter fraud, even though study after study reveals that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. (It’s about as likely to happen as being struck by lightning.) Critics counter that these strict ID laws are thinly veiled attempts to keep society’s disadvantaged, particularly minorities, from voting at all in order to give Republicans an edge at the polls. Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania House majority leader, basically admitted it. With a candor most Republicans have the sense to use only behind closed doors, he listed the party’s legislative achievements at a Republican State Committee meeting, including the new voting restrictions: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

Turzai’s statement was revealing but far from surprising. Indeed, while voter ID laws have been the latest and most high-profile prong in the attack on voting rights, they are in fact part of a much broader effort to disenfranchise minority voters. Nowhere is this clearer than in state laws that prohibit convicted felons from voting, in some cases for life.



According to a new report from the Sentencing Project, there are now 5.85 million people in the U.S. who are barred from voting because of a felony conviction, about 2.5 percent of the total population. Predictably, given the history of racism that gave rise to them, felony disenfranchisement laws have had a vastly disproportionate impact on African-Americans. Today approximately 7.7 percent of African-Americans old enough to vote are disenfranchised nationwide, compared to just 1.8 percent of the rest of the population. The reason for these astonishing figures is that in many states, disenfranchisement for felonies (and, in some cases, even misdemeanors) is all but permanent.

While most states automatically restore voting rights at some point, there is an ignominious list of 12 that make voting after a felony conviction anywhere from difficult to near impossible. Take Mississippi. It is among the Southern states that implemented felony voting laws over a century ago to circumvent the 15th Amendment (giving blacks the right to vote). Today, citizens of Mississippi who are found guilty of any number of felonies do not regain their full voting rights, even after they serve their time and complete all parole or probation requirements. However, there is a pathway back to enfranchisement — one that would be downright comical if its effects weren’t so profound. In the Magnolia State, convicts wishing to vote again must either appeal directly to the governor for an executive order or ask their state representative to author a bill restoring their right to vote, a bill that both houses of the Legislature must pass. Big shock: reenfranchisement in Mississippi is only marginally more common than voter fraud; just .08 percent of ex-felons in Mississippi have seen their voting rights restored.

The 11 states that, in addition to Mississippi, do not restore voting rights to convicted felons account for 45 percent of the country’s disenfranchised population, and some of them are frighteningly adept at keeping black voters from the polls. In Kentucky, Florida and Virginia, at least 20 percent of African-Americans old enough to vote are disenfranchised. Of course, on top of revealing appalling racism, these numbers are alarming because of what they could mean for the 2012 election. Florida and Virginia are among the most hotly contested swing states in the country, with the outcome in the presidential race likely to be decided by a relatively small number of votes. (In 2008, Obama took Florida and Virginia by just over 200,000 votes in each. There are 1.3 million disenfranchised voters in Florida alone, the most in the nation, and Virginia has over 350,000.) If Romney takes Florida or Virginia, there’s no doubt he, like many politicians nationwide, will owe a tip of the hat to Jim Crow.

With 48 states restricting the voting rights of convicted felons, it seems that a national conversation on the issue isn’t likely any time soon. But maybe we should question the basic premise behind felony voting laws — that those who break society’s rules should lose their vote.  In two states, Maine and Vermont, that’s not what happens. Regardless of the crime, convicted felons in those states maintain their right to vote, even while incarcerated. Since felony voting laws are rooted, at least in part, in historical efforts to deny black voters a political voice, it’s perhaps no coincidence that Maine and Vermont have some of the lowest black populations in the U.S. — or that Mississippi, Virginia and Florida have some of the highest. It’s worth asking, though, whether our social interests are served by punishments that make reintegration into mainstream society less likely for convicts, irrespective of race or ethnicity.

There is reason to believe, for instance, that people who vote are more likely to be involved in their communities and less likely to be rearrested. What’s more, we know that most people who have lost their right to vote were guilty of nonviolent offenses. But even in the case of the most violent criminals, do we really think they should lose their chance to choose their political leaders? Regardless of their crime, it’s undeniable that the roughly 2.2 million people behind bars today, along with the millions more who have been released, have seen and experienced the cruelest, most dysfunctional elements of the American power structure — the elements that are arguably more in need of reform than any others. How likely are we to achieve meaningful change if the people best positioned to champion it are locked out after they are locked up?

Unfortunately, as the recent Republican efforts in Pennsylvania reveal, blatant injustices can often be politically expedient. Of course, Republicans are not the only beneficiaries of our glaring inequality, but these days they seem to be its loudest cheerleaders. Between Mitt Romney’s race baiting and Paul Ryan’s vision for a shredded safety net, it’s clear that Republicans are betting on a future in which political and economic power will accrue to an increasingly select few.

Got a problem with that? Let’s hope you can still vote.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>