Voting Rights Act Turns 45; Will Felon Disenfranchisement Prove Its Midlife Crisis?
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; and whether or not felon disenfranchisement is found to violate the Voting Rights Act, it certainly has an ugly past. (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):
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.”