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