For Activists, Felony Disenfranchisement Remains A Fight For Civil Rights

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — If you live in the community, you have the right to vote. A New York law passed last month makes that clear for people living on parole. This is a win in the fight for re-enfranchisement. According to activists and experts, the next step is to allow people currently incarcerated to vote.

Because Black people are disproportionately represented in prison populations, laws denying prisoners the right to vote have largely impacted Black communities. Since African Americans gained the right to vote, there have been efforts to suppress or deny the Black vote. Felony disenfranchisement remains a hurdle for civil rights.

What Engagement Looks Like

Community activist Phoebe Brown said disenfranchisement can lead to disengagement, but, at her home in Ithaca, she clarified her community is definitely not disengaged from each other.

Community activist Phoebe Brown stands in front of the mutual aid tent she keeps outside of her home in Ithaca. People drop off what they do not need, and take what they can use. (Sarah Gager/WSKG)

“We may be on the phone for two hours, three hours, just talking about things that we’re experiencing, stuff that we’re going through, the similarities and how do we support each other to get through,” Brown said. “So, we’re disengaged from the ‘bigger picture’ that people think, but we are talking, and we are making decisions and we are supporting one another.”

The “bigger picture” is a reference to politics. Brown works with the Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ), which advocates for criminal justice reform. She said there is disengagement with a system that many feel does not prioritize them or listen to their needs.

“People who have loved ones incarcerated tend not to vote,” Brown explained. “How do we encourage them to vote? How do we begin to help them understand that their vote will be impactful in everything that this future wants to see?”

Brown said AFJ continues to encourage people to vote, and, with a new New York law extending the right to people on parole, it will take a grassroots effort to get them registered and motivated to exercise it.

For the last year the organization was in Albany, pushing to get that right for people who are still incarcerated.

“People shouldn’t lose their human rights. That’s a human right,” Brown said.

The Supreme Court ruling on Richardson v. Ramirez in 1974 set a precedent in carving out a second form of citizenship for those convicted of crimes. It allowed for the exclusion of people convicted of felonies from voting without violating the U.S. Constitution.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow people who are currently incarcerated to vote.

Voting And The Community

Christopher Uggen, Regents Professor of Sociology, Law, and Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, found people who participate in voting are unlikely to commit more crimes.

“Their risk really drops quite a bit, and it’s kind of analogous to the relationship with marriage,” he explained. “Where your bonds to your marital partner may play a role in reducing your recidivism, your bonds to your employer the same sort of way, and here voting, in my view, is like your bond to the community, your ties to the community, and its an expression of those things.”

A majority of those incarcerated will rejoin the community outside of prison at some point, but the gates of prison are where many seem to draw a line for allowing the right to vote.

“I think in general the reason that the laws persist and that people accept this intrusion is the stigma of felony convictions,” Uggen said. “Nobody wants to be portrayed as soft on crime.”

Felony disenfranchisement excludes about five million Americans from voting. For Uggen, that exclusion can warp the policy positions of the major parties.

“This can affect our crime policy, but it can also affect our policy on basic economic justice issues, on things like the infrastructure spending, and on all sorts of policy choices we might have.”

Uggen said outside of the U.S, it is more common for prisoners to be given the right to vote. He noted when he was in Spain, the debate was whether prisoners should be able to hold office.

In America, felony disenfranchisement remains. For many, it is a residue of Jim Crow.