Blue or red, donkey or elephant – the election is polarizing, but we can all mobilize behind the right to vote. Startling statistics demonstrate the magnitude of voter apathy in recent elections (more people cast votes for “American Idol” than for president). In 2004, celebrities like P. Diddy, sporting T-shirts challenging, “VOTE OR DIE,” accosted us, encouraging us all to “Rock the Vote.” While I applaud this mobilization of activity encouraging Americans to exercise their right to vote, I want to draw attention to a less publicized, similarly startling set of statistics.

One out of every 50 American adults is denied the right to vote; 13 percent of the black adult male population is disenfranchised; 3.9 million Americans are doomed when they are stripped of their civic identities and sapped of their political livelihood.

Who are these 3.9 million people excluded on Election Day? The faces behind these statistics are felons and ex-felons forbidden from voting, running for public office or serving on juries. In 10 states, to be convicted of a single felony results in a life-long sentence: disenfranchisement.

Ex-felon disenfranchisement is a modern-day form of subjugating an entire group of people. Ex-felons are punished beyond mere incarceration and forced to be subjects of the state. There is a difference between not exercising a right to vote and not having that opportunity. Ideally, and constitutionally, every American should influence the organization and operation of the state. Yet, ex-felons are given no recourse to counter state policy.

The Vietnam War empirically demonstrates the impact of this policy of exclusion. As a result of the draft, many were sent to war involuntarily, but most had an opportunity to exercise their opposition to the war via their vote. Many ex-felons were drafted and sent to war without an opportunity to voice dissent democratically.

Additionally, ex-felons are socially excluded and stigmatized for life. Without an outlet for civic participation, felons are cast to the fringes of society. Democratic rights are a necessary bridge of reintroduction to and rehabilitation within society, fostering a sense of inclusion and responsibility for an individual’s community. These ties help counter alienation that encourages crime or repeat offenses.

This denial of democracy has staggering impacts. Post-election analysis suggests if ex-felons had had the right to vote in Florida in the 2000 election, they would have voted for the Democratic candidate and would have been a large enough block to change the results of the race. While some critics argue felons would not vote even if they had the opportunity, research suggests that many felons, especially ex-felons at the end of their sentencing, exhibit a strong desire to participate in the communities into which they are reintroduced.

Felonies are under the jurisdiction of the individual states, which makes enforcement and applications of these laws spotty and inconsistent. In 47 states, felons actually in prison are denied the vote and the numbers of states with disenfranchisement laws continue to change at different stages of the sentencing process – some states disenfranchise for life, some while on parole or probation. Because there is no national standard, there is no framework for felons to look toward to regain rights.

The injustice of these laws of disenfranchisement is magnified by the disproportional distance between crime and punishment. Because so many drug charges are felonies, this means that a vast percentage of the disenfranchised felon population pays for life for nonviolent offenses. Given the institutional racism of the criminal justice system and the unfair application and manipulation of legal standards like probable cause and the “three strikes” rule, blacks are overwhelmingly charged with felonies and disproportionately disenfranchised.

assive racism pervades our electoral system that purports to be equally democratic. The application of disenfranchisement seems awfully reminiscent of Jim Crow laws like literacy tests and poll taxes we allegedly overturned 40 years ago.

The exclusion of any vote threatens the institution of American democracy and the legitimacy of every other vote. The ultimate goal for American democracy should be that no citizen is denied the right to vote, yet I feel it will be a long time before this hope is realized. In the interim there are a number of proposals for systems through which ex-felons have the opportunity to earn back their right to vote by completing a stint volunteering with a national service organization like AmeriCorps. A federal law or a Supreme Court ruling that deemed felon disenfranchisement unconstitutional would be ideal, but both are unlikely in the current political climate.

Be a friend to felons and advocate reform on the state level. There are avenues for felons to earn back their vote, but they are buried in under-publicized, complex laws. National organizations like the Sentencing Project and the American Civil Liberties Union are cooperating on the Right to Vote Campaign, which uses a combination of litigation, policy reform, public education and community outreach to achieve felon re-enfranchisement. For more information visit http://www.sentencingproject.org/RightToVote.aspx.

Julia Lovett is a sophomore in the College, a board member of the Critical Theory Society and a member of the debate team.

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