Beginning after Reconstruction—when Black men were granted the right to vote—the implementation of voter disenfranchisement laws crept across the United States in the form of poll taxes, literacy tests, and gerrymandering. Contemporary voter disenfranchisement laws have since mutated to target incarcerated individuals, becoming more subliminal and difficult to combat. Vesla Weaver explains in her essay on frontlash how conflating crime with fear of racial disorder helped alter rhetoric from reform to punishment and centralize policy that criminalizes people of color and strips them of their civil liberties. Compounding realities of poverty, lack of information, and a rhetoric of deservingness that is racialized, classed, and gendered has excluded over 4.6 million incarcerated individuals from exercising their ability to vote. Because each state has varied policies concerning felon voting rights, communication and knowledge on voting for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals becomes cloudy, making it harder to combat disenfranchisement on a national scale. The question of who is deserving of a vote remains omnipresent in American politics, and indicates a lack of cohesion and commitment to democracy on the subnational level.
The Sentencing Project reports that across the nation one in 19 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.5 times higher than non-African Americans. Because the American criminal justice system conflates criminality with Blackness, the potential of the Black electorate is undermined by mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement laws that disproportionately impact Black men. In Tennessee this number is higher; over 21% of Black Americans with felony convictions are estimated to be disenfranchised voters. These estimates don’t take into account the formerly incarcerated individuals who are disenfranchised due to misinformation and uncertainty about their voting eligibility. Throughout the country two percent of the total voting eligible population is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony charge—75% of disenfranchised people are living within their communities having finished their sentence.
Pamela Moses, an activist from Memphis, was sentenced to six years in prison for trying to register to vote while she was ineligible. Moses, having confirmed with a local probation officer that her parole had ended, submitted a voter registration form. Within days she was notified that the probation officer had made an error on the certificate confirming her pardon. Due to her active felony sentence she was ineligible to register to vote and would thus face new criminal charges. The obscure legalese in Tennessee surrounding the rights of people charged with felonies make these “mistakes” fairly common throughout the state. Tennessee boasts a slew of uncompromising voter disenfranchisement laws, permanently removing the voting rights of individuals convicted of murder, rape, treason, or voter fraud. Other felonies require a certificate of restoration from the Board of Probation and Parole and payment in full of any court ordered fees if an individual would like to re-register to vote. 8% of Tennessee’s voting eligible population is disenfranchised due to these complicated regulations.
These laws become even more egregious when put into greater historical context. The assumption that court fines and restitution will be paid becomes more obstructive when realizing that the median income of incarcerated people prior to their incarceration is 41% less that non-incarcerated people in the same age demographic. Time spent within a prison serves to solidify poverty, when the average prison wage is 52 cents per hour (7 times less than the Federal minimum wage) and for incarcerated people in six states no compensation is paid. Moreover, many Black Americans have historically been denied opportunities to accumulate generational wealth and achieve the social mobility mythologized in the American Dream. The compounding issues of race and poverty—systemic barriers of economic growth through slavery, sharecropping, redlining, mass incarceration, pay inequality, and a lack of access to adequate public goods and programs through segregation—further marginalize the potential power of the Black electorate.
Arguments in favor of denying people in prisons the right to vote often propound the preservation of ballot box purity. The suppression of racial minorities and impoverished people’s access to voting is simultaneously antithetical to equality and liberty and yet so elementary in American political discourse. Current dialogues that distinguish “criminals” from “normal people” perpetuate threats to democracy. Conflating criminality with minority phenotypes serves to normalize the continued rhetorical and physical violence enacted against them. Through the perpetuation of said violence, “civil death” or the removal and restriction of voting rights ensues. Consequently, the denial of civil liberties and basic human rights become morally and politically justified. Weaver propounds that discourse on crime where race is indirectly targeted is actually the “path of least resistance” for conservative incumbents in maintaining the status quo and seeking reelection (Weaver, 233). By separating a deserving and undeserving electorate we undermine the foundations of democracy that rely upon an individual’s intrinsic and unobstructed right to express their opinions through a vote in the political sphere.
Robert Mickey identifies polarization, growing moral panic among white people on their place in the racial hierarchy, and rising economic inequality as primary subnational impediments that are decreasing the quality of American democracy. These factors contribute to voter disenfranchisement uniquely, but are a nexus between mass incarceration, voter disenfranchisement and the depreciation of democracy on subnational scales. This becomes increasingly visible in states like Tennessee with overlapping large Black populations and large incarcerated populations. Polarization and perceived moral indivisibilities rooted in growing racial resentment fuel discourse on deservingness that excludes and silences incarcerated people, particularly incarcerated people of color. Republican state legislators sometimes explicitly express their voter eligibility restriction proposals are created to minimize the voting power of people of color, young voters, and other underrepresented demographics (Mickey, 122). This sustains a cycle of partisan polarization and undermines the essence of free and fair elections. Rhetoric in conjunction with the material realities of poverty, physically inhibits millions of people from voting. The nature of federalist systems creates greater variation in policy surrounding voting rights and impacts the severity of felon disenfranchisement across the country. So while in Tennessee Pamela Moses faced further criminal charges for attempting to exercise her right to vote as a person convicted of a felony, in a state like Maine or Vermont (the only two states without disenfranchisement policies that inhibit any incarcerated person from voting) she never would have lost her ability to vote.
The intentional and systematic disenfranchisement of voters, particularly Black voters, through mass incarceration and frontlash indicates further cracks in the foundations of American democracy. Suppression of minority voices and etiolation of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people through the coupling of race and criminality in political rhetoric conjointly with historic and contemporary economic barriers mar the equal representation necessary for democracy to thrive. Our carceral justice system is contingent upon the suppression of minority communities and becomes a tool to justify a lack of democratic representation subnationally.