Sometimes, we’re so busy asking the wrong question that we never get to the real answer.
For example, remember all the media coverage about unsafe day care vans. And yet, no reporter ever bothered to ask why we needed to be transporting these kids in dozens and dozens of vans all over Memphis every day in the first place. What were its public policy benefits?
Now, we come to the contested election of Ophelia Ford as state senator. State investigators are looking into whether ex-felons voted in violation of state law. But no reporter is bothering to ask why Tennessee is not part of the national move to reform felony disenfranchisement laws.
In the U.S., about 5 million people – about one in 43 adults – have lost their voting rights as a result of felony convictions. That includes 13 percent of all African-American men, at a rate seven times the national average. About 2 million whites cannot vote and about 600,000 military veterans.
There is no rhyme or reason to state laws governing this issue. Three states deny the right to vote to any ex-offenders while two states even allow inmates to vote. Of course, the disenfranchisement of ex-felons catapulted to the front pages in the 2000 presidential election when George W. Bush won Florida (and ultimately, the election) by about 550 votes although 600,000 ex-felons in Florida were unable to vote.
In Tennessee, the number of disenfranchised voters is about 100,000 — 14.5 percent of all African-Americans and about 2.4 percent of the total population. General demographic data for Tennessee would indicate that the percentage of African-American disenfranchisement in Memphis is higher than the state average of 14.5 percent.
In an analysis in Atlanta, disenfranchisement was seen as contributing to a vicious cycle. “In citywide decisionmaking regarding spending for schools or social services, residents of certain neighborhoods will have considerably more political influence than others, solely because ‘one person, one vote’ is distorted through the loss of voting rights.”
As an example, the study cited the disproportionate impact of drug policy on minority neighborhoods. The higher rate of prison for offenders in these neighborhoods and tough on crime campaigns that target these neighborhoods skew the percentage of ex-felons who cannot vote. As a result, while many elected officials of these neighborhoods are concerned about the social costs of drugs and call for a balanced approach to prevention and enforcement, the fewer number of voters in the area gives them less impact on public policy, the report said.
In addition, sociologists writing in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review point out that there is a “consistent difference” in the rate of arrest, incarceration and criminal behavior between voters and non-voters, leading them to conclude that disenfranchisement marginalizes ex-felons and encourages them to see themselves as apart from society.
A number of states are considering the reform of their laws. The trend is bolstered by the American Bar Association’s endorsement of the principle that “persons convicted of any offense should not be deprived to the right to vote” and the National Commission on Federal Election Reform – co-chaired by former Presidents Carter and Ford – unanimously recommending that voting rights be restored upon completion of a sentence. Even the American Correctional Association has approved a similar position.
Already, Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming have taken steps to reform their disenfranchisement laws. A new bill is pending in Alabama that will unrestrict voting even more, making it automatic. Utah senators voted last week to broaden the ability of its citizens to have their voting rights restored. Meanwhile, in Maryland, the legislature is now considering a bill to restore voting rights for ex-felons. Maryland is one of 11 states that disenfranchise some felons for life (along with Tennessee).
As proponents of the measure point out, no other democratic nation disenfranchises ex-felons who have completed their sentence. No serious attempt appears to be under way in Nashville to reform Tennessee’s laws, but clearly, it’s an idea whose time is coming.
It’s an interesting footnote unrelated directly to this issue that while lawmakers are slow to restore voting rights, they are often anxious to have prisons and prisoners in their districts. That’s because prisoners are counted in the total population of the community where the prison is located.
This means that the location of some prisons, especially federal ones, are sometimes heavily influenced by political factors, because the addition of the prisoners into a city’s population can have an impact on the drawing of Congressional districts or even the addition of another Congressman for a state.
Also, numerous federal programs appropriate money to cities based on their populations, and cities with prisons in effect receive money for prisoners, who in turn receive no city services from them.