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. (http://www.racialdiscoursect.com)                

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.

 

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May 31, 2017
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Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

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June 11, 2017
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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
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Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

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September 10, 2017
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Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

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Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.