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EDITORIAL: A look into why felons are disenfranchised


It’s an accepted fact that U.S. voter turnout is low. Most Americans attribute this to sheer laziness.

What if we told you that one in every 40 American adults can’t vote this coming November? Immediately, the narrative changes.

The U.S. has a long history of denying felons the right to vote, even long after their convictions.

According to Bernard Fraga, a professor for IU’s Department of Political Science, many individuals don’t realize felon disenfranchisement laws have a deeply racist history.

These laws began in the South and were put in place in the late 1800s because the criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerated African Americans. Lawmakers used this technique to exclude African Americans through constitutional means.

Today, ostensibly, these laws still exist for practical reasons — a large contingent of Americans agree people who commit serious crimes should not be allowed to vote.

Although this sentiment is by no means unreasonable, what constitutes a felony varies between states, diminishing any clear continuity of when, how and if convicted individuals will ever get back to the ballot box.

“In a state like Georgia, if you grow a certain amount of marijuana, it means you’re a drug dealer, it means you’re a felon, and it means you lose your right to vote forever,” Fraga said. “In the state of Colorado or Washington, it means you’re a successful businessperson.”

In Indiana, a drug offense could very likely result in a felony and subsequently, disenfranchisement.

The Editorial Board fears because of the nature of these laws, it creates too much wiggle room for bizarre disparities to occur like the example above.

For Florida, felon disenfranchisement laws have a lifetime ban on voting. Ten percent of adult Floridians cannot vote – in a swing state nonetheless.

That being said, Fraga made it clear that if these laws were to be absent, they probably would not impact the election outcome. This is because studies suggest many of these disenfranchised individuals are unlikely to vote to begin with due to socioeconomics.

Instead, it would completely alter election discourse.

As we currently plummet through the downward spiral of tweet storms, Kenneth Bone memes and Donald Trump sniffing videos, it might be difficult to recall the actual content of the two presidential debates we’ve witnessed so far.

When evaluating what the candidates are talking about, rhetoric discussing felonies and improving the criminal justice system is largely absent.

This is quite obviously due to the nature of politics — if one wants to be elected by voters, why appeal to those who can’t vote?

“The issues of a large portion of the population are not addressed because they can’t vote. Theoretically, the president represents all of the people, not just the citizens, not just the voters, not just the people from his or her own party,” Fraga said.

Perhaps, in an ideal world, the candidates would spend an equal amount of time addressing each part of the populace.

And in that world, perhaps felons, once they’ve finished doing their time and are fully integrated into society, would be allowed to register to vote just like any American.

But, alas, they are not, and the tricky history of felon disenfranchisement still looms around these laws today.

Fraga said it best, “It’s one thing to say that someone who’s in jail or incarcerated shouldn’t be allowed to vote, but it’s another thing to say that you can’t vote even after you’ve served your time and you’re fully integrated into society.”

Essentially, it’s a totally unnecessary slap in the face.

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