By Howard Henderson and Jennifer Wyatt Bourgeois*
Despite major breakthroughs in the American democratic experiment, inequalities based on race and gender remain. The exclusion of black people from voting has been one of the most consistent realities of the post-emancipation journey. In fact, during Reconstruction, blacks were more likely to be lynched in the lead-up to an election. Right now, black people are four times more likely to lose their right to vote than any other racial/ethnic group, to the tune of 1.8 million citizens. For context, more than 400 voter suppression bills have been proposed in 48 states by policymakers focused on reintroducing Jim Crow and his racist barriers to civic inclusion.
The right to vote is at the heart of democracy. Despite the presence of five amendments protecting this age-old practice, 5.2 million people are disenfranchised due to their criminal status, 75% of whom are currently on probation, parole or have served their debt to society. In fact, only Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated people to vote. Note that research has found a significant relationship between perceived racial threat and the presence of disenfranchisement laws.
Hervis Rogers, a 62-year-old parolee, was arrested in early July 2021 and released on 0,000 bond. A quick review of offense-specific bail amounts from the US Department of Justice would highlight that the median bail amount for robbery is $20,000, rape is $25,000, and murder is $100,000.
This man’s crime? Voting on parole. Indeed, voting while on parole allowed Mr. Rogers to secure bail usually reserved for accused murderers.
In March 2020, Rogers made national headlines when he waited in line for six hours to vote in the presidential primary. More than a year later, Texas Attorney General Ken Patton ordered Rogers’ arrest for illegal voting while he was on parole for a burglary conviction 25 years prior. He could now face up to 40 years in prison if convicted. Rogers was just shy of his parole end on June 13, 2020, and maintains he didn’t know he couldn’t vote.
Rogers’ story is similar to that of more than five million others, and it highlights a crisis that has been hidden for generations: the silence of citizens under criminal justice surveillance, many of whom are black or brown.
The incarceration crisis of our democracy
We recently published a report, Incarceration of democracy, examining in depth the tactics of voter suppression exercised in the 2020 presidential election. Despite the presence of five amendments protecting this age-old practice, it is estimated that over 5.2 million citizens were unable to vote in the 2020 election cycle due to a felony conviction, 75% of them are currently on probation, parole or have served their debt to society. Additionally, at least four states disenfranchise all prisoners and parolees, and 16 states restrict voting for those in prison, on parole, or on probation. In Florida, formerly incarcerated people are prohibited from voting until they have no outstanding court costs and fines associated with their prior convictions. For some people, these costs were as high as $53,000. At the end of it, only Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated people to vote.
Compared to the 2016 elections, the number of people banned from voting has decreased, but not the attempts to systematically exclude civil engagement. Due to a current or previous felony conviction, 1 in 44 people – 2.27% of the entire voting-eligible population in the United States – are disenfranchised. The Sentencing Project found that disenfranchisement practices and policies have a disparate impact on black communities, with black Americans four times more likely to lose their right to vote. In the 2016 election, of the 6.1 million Americans barred from voting, 36% or 2.2. million were black. Research has found that felony disenfranchisement hinders the process of reintegration and increases the risk of recidivism.
Continued attempts to limit representative government, through voter suppression, are an unnecessary provision that undermines the foundations of our democracy and can no longer be swept under the rug.
Repeated cycles of silencing black communities
With each election cycle comes a new wave of status quo (i.e. Jim Crow) tactics designed to suppress black citizens and other members of the working class. As columnist Charles Blow stated in his op-ed for The New York Times, “The decisive white vote and the white voice are in danger not because of shifts in values and demographics, but because of deception and deception. As such, they must pass laws to suppress and ensure the purity of the vote. They do not want to strengthen the vote, but whitewash it.
However, this is just one of many interconnected vehicles being used to silence black communities across the country. According to the Sentencing Project, black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white Americans. However, 41% of white inmates are granted parole, compared to 34% of blacks and 33% of Hispanics. Based on outstanding legal financial obligations, several states continue to disenfranchise some people long after they have paid their debts to society and are no longer under the scrutiny of criminal justice. Not only are black Americans at a disproportionate risk of being incarcerated and losing their right to vote, but the likelihood of being granted parole and possibly having those rights restored is also unfairly afforded.
This isn’t our first rodeo with using the criminal justice system as a tool for voter suppression. Look no further than the Confederate response to Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. Voter suppression is the operationalization of taxation without representation. Yet as our country attempts to align itself with the post-Floyd social justice paradigm, the call for equal voter representation may no longer fall on deaf ears. This crisis must be addressed – and it can only be by standing up for the rights of individuals like Hervis Rogers, sharing the facts and connecting the stories of today to the days of yore.
The road to progress
As outlined in Imprisoning Democracy, there are three main paths to solving the voter suppression crisis that is hampering our nation’s march toward equal representation. First of all, we must defend the rights of convicted criminals because they are human. Since 2019, seven states have restored the franchise to convicted citizens, whether released from prison, on parole, or incarcerated. There is undoubtedly still work to be done here, but progress is on the horizon. Especially considering the prevailing social consensus that the American criminal justice system, which fuels the cycle of unjust arrests, convictions and incarcerations, is in dire need of reform.
Secondly, we must continue to support organized legal efforts to fight voter suppression. Rogers’ extraordinarily high bail was paid by the Bail Project, a non-profit organization that provides bail assistance to low-income people and is backed by a strong legal team, including the American Civil Liberties Union. (ACLU) of Texas. These groups are creating change before our eyes, and there is an urgent need to support these grassroots organizations that can help the Hervis Rogers among us.
Finally, we need to get to the root of all these problems: the use of the American criminal justice system, in favor of a caste system. African Americans and Latinos make up 29% of the US population, but they make up 57% of the nation’s prison population. Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts. And, in any given year, 2 million young people under the age of 18 are arrested, of which young people from minorities are overrepresented. There is a problem here, and it can only be solved with culturally appropriate, evidence-based solutions that support federal, state, and local policies that increase access to the democratic process, all of which are necessary for a democracy. more representative.
*About the authors: Howard Henderson and Jennifer Wyatt Bourgeois (Postdoctoral Fellow – Center for Justice Research, Texas Southern University)