The election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 and 2012 sent tremors through the right wing in American politics. They seized their opportunity in 2013 after the US supreme court gutted the Voting Rights Act and doubled down on some vestiges of the Jim Crow era, such as felony disfranchisement.
In 2016, one in 13 African Americans had lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction – compared with one in 56 of every non-black voter. The felony disfranchisement rate in the United States has grown by 500% since 1980. In America, mass incarceration equals mass felony disfranchisement. With the launch of the war on drugs, millions of African Americans were swept into the criminal justice system, many never to exercise their voting rights again.
Generally, the incarcerated cannot vote, but once they have served their time, which sometimes includes parole or probation, there is a process – often arcane and opaque – that allows for the restoration of voting rights. Overall, 6.1 million Americans have lost their voting rights. Currently, because of the byzantine rules, “approximately 2.6 million individuals who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised due to restrictive state laws”, according to The Sentencing Project.
The majority are in Florida. The Sunshine State is actually an electorally dark place for 1.7 million citizens because “Florida is the national champion of voter disenfranchisement”, according to the Florida Centre for Investigative Reporting. The state leads the way in racializing felony disfranchisement as well. “Nearly one-third of those who have lost the right to vote for life in Florida are black, although African Americans make up just 16% of the state’s population,” according to Conor Friedersdorf’s reporting for the Atlantic.
Florida is one of only four states, including Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia, that “permanently” disfranchises felons.
The term “permanent” means that there is no automatic restoration of voting rights. Instead, there is a process to plead for dispensation, which usually requires petitioning all the way up to the governor after a specified waiting period. Republican Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, has made that task doubly difficult. The Florida Office of Executive Clemency, which he leads, meets only four times a year and has more than 10,000 applications waiting to be heard. An ex-offender cannot even apply to have his or her voting rights restored until 14 years after all the sentencing requirements have been met. The process is therefore daunting enough as it is, but Scott has slowed it down considerably.
His predecessor, a moderate Republican turned Democrat, “restored rights to 155,315 ex-offenders” over a four-year span. Since 2011, however, Scott has approved only 2,340 cases.
Republicans in Georgia have brought their own distinct twist to voter suppression. Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, has developed a pattern of going after and intimidating organizations that register minorities to vote. In 2012, when the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center (AALAC) realized that a number of its clients, who were newly naturalized citizens, were not on the voter rolls although they had been registered, its staff made an inquiry with the secretary of state’s office.
After waiting and waiting and still receiving no response, AALAC issued an open letter expressing concern that the early voting period would close before they had an answer. Two days later, in a show of raw intimidation, Kemp launched an investigation questioning the methods the organization had used to register new voters. One of the group’s attorneys was “aghast … ‘I’m not going to lie: I was shocked, I was scared.’” AALAC remained under this ominous cloud for more than two years before Kemp’s office finally concluded there was no wrongdoing.
Kemp then went after the New Georgia Project when in 2014 the organization decided to whittle away at the bloc of 700,000 unregistered African American voters in the state and, in its initial run, registered nearly 130,000 mostly minority voters. Kemp didn’t applaud and see democracy in action. Instead, he exclaimed in a TV interview, “We’re just not going to put up with fraud.”
Later, when talking with a group of fellow Republicans behind closed doors, he didn’t claim “fraud”. It was something much baser. “Democrats are working hard … registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines,” he warned. “If they can do that, they can win these elections in November.” Not surprisingly, within two months of that discussion, he “announced his criminal investigation into the New Georgia Project”. And, just as before, Kemp’s hunt for fraud dragged on and on with aspersions and allegations filling the airwaves and print media while no evidence of a crime could be found.
Vote suppression has become far too commonplace. In 2017, “99 bills to limit access to the ballot have been introduced in 31 states … and more states have enacted new voting restrictions in 2017 than in 2016 and 2015 combined”, according to Abi Berman.
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/ ... ity-voters