Right to Vote??
SEATTLE - When he was 22, Willie Robinson shot and killed a woman in the course of a failed carjacking. But in 2002, after 20 years in prison, he was released — and he believes he's paid his debt to society.
Under sentencing laws, the state of Washington agrees. But under another law that bars former felons from voting, he continues to pay.
"I can't vote, and yet I pay taxes toward the salaries of the people who represent me," says Robinson, now a cabinetmaker in suburban Marysville. "Isn't it so that people want us to be productive citizens after getting out? But then we have limited rights to participate. It doesn't make sense."
Robinson is one of about 4.7 million Americans disenfranchised by state laws that suspend or cancel voting rights for people who have committed felonies. He is also African American, putting him in the group of Americans most affected by these laws because blacks are disproportionately convicted of felonies. In some cities, as many as one in three African American men are barred from voting.
The state laws have long been a point of contention among prisoner rights groups. They became a subject of national debate after President Bush won Florida by a razor-thin margin in the 2000 election in a race where voting by ex-felons might easily have changed the outcome.
“What galvanized the debate was the appearance of disenfranchisement law as a tool in electoral combat,” says Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at Harvard and author of "The Right to Vote."
Part of the controversy was fueled by the conventional, though unproven, notion that African American voters in particular, and people emerging from prison in general, are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.
Some critics say disenfranchisement laws are little more than an extension of old Jim Crow measures designed to dilute the political clout of African American communities. "Whenever you are talking about prison populations, you are talking about race," says Mervyn Mercano, communications director the Right to Vote Coalition in Washington, D.C.
"The truth is, we're set up to fail," says Robinson, who feels lucky not to have ended up on the streets like many former inmates. Since his release, he has cofounded an organization called Justice Works, which helps inmates emerging from prison with the difficult pursuit of housing, jobs and political rights.
Courts back felon exclusion
The Supreme Court has ruled that states have the right to restrict voting so long as they apply laws equally to all races, even if the outcome is uneven.
A 1985 decision, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, largely closed the door on arguments about the uneven impact of these laws. The decision notes that the 14th Amendment, which granted all male adults the right to vote, does allow states to exclude people for "participation in rebellion, or other crime."
So while some legal experts argue that the post-Civil War provisions were aimed at excluding traitors — and not, for instance, cattle rustlers — the court allowed states to maintain a broader interpretation of "other crime."
Defenders of these laws say they are not only legal, but logical.
"Somebody who is not willing to follow the law should not claim a right to make the law for everyone else. When you vote that’s what you’re doing," says Roger Clegg, general counsel to the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D.C., think tank that opposes race-based policy decisions.
Clegg says it makes sense to withhold voting rights, and restore them on a case-by-case basis, depending on the seriousness of the crime, how recently it was committed and whether there were repeat offenses.
The disproportionate impact on African Americans is not a reason to repeal the laws, he says, drawing an analogy: "A disproportionate number of crimes are committed by men, not women, but I don’t think that makes the laws sexist."