Shut Out from Democracy

By Bilal Dabir Sekou

The 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gave all male citizens the right to vote regardless of “previous condition of servitude,” and the 19th Amendment extended the franchise to women, but an estimated 5.85 million ex-felons have been disenfranchised by restrictive legislation in 48 states and the District of Columbia that prevents people convicted of a felony from voting. Only Vermont and Maine allow prisoners to vote, even though every state counts their bodies in apportioning congressional districts. According to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy project, some 75% of disenfranchised citizens are people who are no longer in prison but on probation or parole supervision. In some states, ex-felons who long since completed their sentence are still barred from voting. Let me emphasize that last point: some 2.6 million people who have paid their “debt to society” are not allowed to participate in the most fundamental act of a democratic country because they live in the 12 states that deny ex-felons the right to vote.

Felon disenfranchisement falls most heavily on people of color because of well-documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Again, according to the Sentencing Project, one of every 13 African Americans is barred from voting. In three states—Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia—more than one of every five African Americans is disenfranchised. In total, 2.2 million African Americans have lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction.

In the lead-up to this year’s election, pivotal swing states under Republican control rushed to enact tighter voting restrictions, such as photo ID, which 11% of eligible voterslack; an end to election-day registration or early voting; and restrictions on voter registration drives. These measures adversely affect people of color, the young, the elderly, and low-income people. They are part of a comprehensive and coordinated assault on the right to vote that started in 2008, when larger-than-usual voter turnout brought Barack Obama to the White House. Many groups have fought restrictions on voting, but felon enfranchisement is a harder sell, one that democratic socialists should understand.

As long as people do not possess the right to vote, they cannot live as citizens of a democracy. When it comes to the right to vote, a simple standard should apply: (1) every adult citizen who wants to be registered is registered; (2) every adult citizen who wants to vote can vote; and (3) every vote that is cast is a vote that is counted. 

A number of national organizations engaged in litigation, legislative and administrative advocacy, and public education—including the NAACP, the ACLU, Common Cause, the Sentencing Project, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, and the Prison Policy Initiative—work with local organizations on campaigns to restore the voting rights of people convicted of a felony and to end prison-based gerrymandering. Socialists are and should be a part of these efforts.

Last year, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder struck down the coverage formula of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had been critical in safeguarding the right to vote for people of color by requiring that jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination must receive preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before putting changes in their voting laws into practice. The Court ruled that the standard for judging discrimination has changed in the 50 years since the law was written. But Congress has the power to create a new coverage formula.

Socialists need to advocate for the strongest law possible to push back efforts at the state level designed to prevent or suppress voter participation. Likewise, although every state should allow prisoners to vote, as in Vermont and Maine, socialists can support the Democracy Restoration Act introduced in Congress by Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), which would restore voting rights in federal elections to individuals after they have been released from incarceration.

Sekou5.jpg Bilal Dabir Sekou is an associate professor of political science at the University of Hartford, Department of Social Sciences, Hillyer College. He can be followed on his blog, Racial and Class Discourse from an Ivory Tower in Connecticut. (                

This article originally appeared in the winter 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine. 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

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Join DSA activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 8-9pm ET, 7-8pm CT, 6-7pm MT, 5-6pm PT.


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Feminist Working Group Call

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