Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Because of Felon Disenfranchisement, One in Four Kentucky Blacks Can’t Vote

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The Brennan Center for Justice reports that one in four African-Americans in Kentucky has lost the right to vote, due to “Kentucky’s archaic criminal disenfranchisement law.” Anyone who has ever been committed of a felony in Kentucky is barred from voting for life, unless he/she gets clemency from the governor. (Virginia is the only other state in the union with such a sweeping felon disenfranchisement law.) Note that although African-Americans are only about 8% of the Kentucky population, they make up 1/3 of the incarcerated population in the Bluegrass State. I’ve blogged before on felon disenfranchisement, and as I noted then — and it’s worth repeating — felon disenfranchisement laws were typically first passed in the late nineteenth century specifically with the intention of disenfranchising black voters. As Pippa Holloway has demonstrated, in many states this was done in tandem with legislation to expand the definition of “felony” to include petty theft, making it easier to use felony prosecutions as a tool of disenfranchisement. Not coincidentally, in the late nineteenth century, felony conviction rates of black men would rise markedly in the months leading up to elections. A South Carolina Republican complained after the 1884 elections (quoted by Holloway, p. 950):

“Negroes are frequently arraigned before petty magistrates on the most trivial charges of larceny, and a conviction in these petty courts is sufficient to disfranchise them forever. This conviction is readily obtained, and the whole proceedings clearly indicate, in many cases, that the prosecution is merely a pretext to deprive the negro of his vote.”

Update: See also this Brennan Center post on Congressional hearings today on the proposed Democracy Restoration Act, which would allow all ex-felons to vote in federal elections, regardless of whether they can vote in state elections. For the Brennan Center’s explanation of its position that such a law would be constitutional, see here.

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Written by sara

March 16, 2010 at 4:31 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] leave a comment » A couple weeks ago, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times noted a few lawsuits coming through the pipeline that threaten to challenge felon disenfranchisement laws under the Voting Rights Act. It’s a timely topic, since the Voting Rights Act turns 45 this year. As noted by ACSblog, as many as one-third of black men in Alabama and Florida are permanently disenfranchised by criminal convictions. While this is primarily a legal blog, I also study history. Whether or not felon disenfranchisement is found to violate the Voting Rights Act, it certainly has an ugly history. (See the Brennan Center’s report, Jim Crow in New York.) As I’ve noted before (the below reproduces an excerpt from this earlier post): […]

  2. […] intent of disenfranchising black voters — see Hunter v. Underwood, which the court cites, and my earlier post on this topic here. Those states don’t tend to be in the Ninth Circuit, though, as far as I know, so I wonder if […]


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