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Why Is It So Easy to Lose Your Right to Vote in America?

There are a lot more ways than you might think.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The right to vote is mentioned five times in the U.S. Constitution. The right to own guns and to free speech, just once each.

So why is it so much easier to lose your right to vote than it is to lose your right to post hate speech, or to buy a semi-automatic weapon? And why do so few of us seem to care?

America, for all its talk about dictatorships and election integrity overseas, remains one of the harshest nations in the world when it comes to disenfranchising its own citizens. But it seems clear to me that not many people in the U.S., even its critics, really grasp the scale of this problem. Maybe they know that gerrymandering is a problem. Or maybe they know that 1.3 million people currently in prison lost their right to vote when they got convicted.

But gerrymandering and incarceration are only a couple of ways to get stripped of your vote in this country. And once you add them all up, you’re talking about some 13 million adults in this country who have been stripped of this most basic and critical of rights.

Police arrest demonstrators from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for holding placards urging blacks to register in Selma, Ala. on Oct. 7, 1964. Photo by Danny Lyon/Magnum

This large-scale disenfranchisement is urgent, it is widespread, and we are not moving nearly fast enough to make it right. Here are just some of the ways to lose your vote in the land of the free:

Get accused and convicted of a felony

This is the one conversation that is getting some attention, and the one that’s seen some movement recently. But it’s still widely misunderstood and underestimated.

Only a small minority of disenfranchised felons are actually still in prison; nationwide, 5.6 million people who have already done their time are still barred from voting. A whopping 30 states, for example, require you to have paid off any fines or fees connected to your conviction — so if you get out of prison, complete your probation, get a minimum wage gig and are working to pay off your laundry fees from your time inside, you’re still ineligible.

Maybe you’re among the people that find that reasonable. But try this on: there are eight states in this country that impose permanent, lifetime disenfranchisement for felony convictions, no matter what else they do when they get out. In five of the eight, that lifetime ban applies only to a list, drawn up by the state, of certain major felonies. But in Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky, anyone who’s convicted of any felony — nonviolent or not — is barred from voting ever again unless they get express permission from the governor.

Now, it is understandable — to a point — that many people are ok with a vicious child abuser losing the right to vote, or a serial killer or a repeat sexual predator. Someone behaves in such a starkly anti-social way, they lose your right to participate in and influence the direction of society. It’s harsh, but I see how the logic works.

That’s not who we’re talking about here.

According the U.S. Justice Department Bureau of Statistics, just 7.7% of people in federal correctional facilities are there for a violent crime, including negligent manslaughter. The overwhelming majority are there for nonviolent drug offenses (47.5%) or “public order” offenses like public intoxication or prostitution (38.2%). It’s very much the same picture on the state level. A full 45.5% of felons in state facilities are locked up for nonviolent crimes, like drug possession or even missing a court date.

Miss a court date for a pot possession charge in Florida, lose the right to vote for life — I would hope most people would agree that that seems disproportionate at best.

Get accused and convicted of a misdemeanor

In more states than you’d think, it doesn’t even take a felony: you can end up stripped of your voting rights by getting convicted of a mere misdemeanor. Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina all have laws on the books that allow for the disenfranchisement of people who haven’t done much more than shoplift or run a red light. And even in states that don’t, it ends up happening de facto anyway. In Pennsylvania, for example, there’s no law saying you can’t vote from jail — but you do have to use an absentee ballot, and for that, the state requires a kind of ID that people in jail can’t access.

Men’s Central Jail at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles, 2004 | National Journal

Owe money to a private probation company

In the 30 states that require people with felonies to pay off any and all fines before they get their vote back, it’s no stretch to say that people are being disenfranchised for being broke. There are no allowances or exemptions here: if I’ve done my time for a prostitution charge, but can’t find any legal work when I get out, I’m not treated any differently than some rich kid with a rape conviction.

But it’s not just owing money to the state that can strip people of their right to vote forever. In at least five states, probation is handled by private companies, not the state itself, and the people under their supervision pay their fees to the company. That doesn’t make a difference when it comes to losing your vote however; if I owe money to a private parole company and I’m in one of those 30 states, I’m barred from voting.

Adding up everyone currently disenfranchised because they got tangled up in the criminal justice system, you end up with 6.1 million adults who should be able to vote, but can’t. Florida alone has 1.5 million of them; to put that into context, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida by about 120,000 votes.

But 6.1 million is still only part of this picture.

Have a disability

There are at least 36 million people in the U.S. with disabilities, which is about 11% of our population. Technically, federal law requires polling places to be accessible like any other public place, but in reality that’s spottily enforced at best, with only about one third of them fully accessible to people with physical disabilities.

Of course, people who are physically incapable of making it to their polling place still have the “right” to vote, even if only on paper. But it goes much farther than that. A stunning 30 states and D.C. have legal provisions that allow for or even specifically require the disenfranchisement of people with “mental incapacities,” a label that can apply to everything from dementia to bipolar disorder to the entire autism scale. 7 of those states haven’t even updated the language in their constitutions that allow it, referring to them as “idiots or insane persons.”

People who cannot get to their voting booth because of disabilities and people who have been barred from voting because of real or perceived mental disabilities, said a recent study from a Stanford researcher, represent at least 3 million lost votes.

A photograph of a person holding up a display board, which looks to be for a school project. The person's head is visible top center, as he is holding the display in his lap.
Jack Vaile was excited to cast his fist vote ever in the Democratic primaries. Then a judge rescinded his voting rights because of his cerebral palsy. Photo credit: Reveal News, courtesy of Lou Vaile

Be an American citizen living in the wrong part of America

Finally, there’s the enormous number of people who are U.S. citizens or nationals, pay U.S. taxes, fight in U.S. wars, have no criminal history at all, but have no right to vote for President. The 4 million people living on the five island territories of the U.S. Residents of Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico can vote in congressional elections, but when it comes to the leader of the free world, they suddenly no longer count.

This one might be about to get even worse. For a few years now, a group of Illinois residents who had moved to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, or American Samoa filed a lawsuit, saying that Illinois should be compelled to let them vote by absentee ballot, as is the case with Americans who move to Northern Mariana Islands. It was moving along pretty quietly, but then the new administration took office, and Jeff Sessions’ DOJ issued an aggressive memo: if it’s unfair that only Americans in Northern Mariana have absentee voting rights, how about if no one who moves to any of those territories gets absentee voting rights? It certainly wouldn’t be out of keeping with this White House to follow through with that threat.

A photograph of two women smiling. They are holding up cardboard signs with slogans on them supporting human rights, social security, and Obamacare. Behind them you can see they are in a big crowd of people.
Samoan women represent during the 2017 Women’s March. Photo via Samoa Observer

And that puts us at 13.1 million otherwise eligible adults who cannot vote: not because they’re not citizens, not because they didn’t care to register, and in most cases not even because they’ve hurt anyone.

And that’s being extremely strict with your definition of the phrase “barred from voting.” I didn’t include the kinds of de facto disenfranchisement that have long been around, and have been ramping up since we lost key parts of the Voting Rights Act. Like the shuttering of polling places on reservations, or the situation of indigenous people living in states that now require ID to vote, but do not accept tribal ID as valid. Or the estimated 30 million Americans who were never taught to read; even if you had everything you needed to find your polling place and make it there on time, there are no accommodations for people with limited literacy, the way there are audio ballots for people who cannot see, or language translators for people with limited English (and I’m sure there are plenty of horror stories about the lack of those, too).

After years of legal challenges, Native Americans in New Mexico register to vote, 1948
After years of legal challenges, Native Americans in New Mexico register to vote, 1948

There’s something very wrong about the fact that we’re still bickering over which group of voters to blame for the results of 2016, but there’s been no large-scale conversation about the millions of voters who wanted to vote, but could not. The closer we get to 2020 without that conversation, the more nervous I get. The folks on the wrong end of the system are exactly the folks who deserve a say in fixing it. Any “Get Out the Vote” effort should include efforts to restore suffrage to people who have lost it, not just to nudge apathetic or disinterested voters to show up to their polling place.

Anything less should be recognized as the band-aid it really is, not the systemic solution we deserve.

Written by Caitlyn McClure

Caitlyn McClure

Caitlyn is Chief Editor, Director of Development, and the unofficial Big Pharma reporter for Other98.


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