US ban on disenfranchised felons voting in spotlight

July 25, 2015 2:53 am

It was one of the great political “what ifs” of modern history
spawning impacts, many malign, that still shape our world. According to
an April 2014 study from the Sentencing Project, a Washington NGO, the
wafer-thin victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore in the 2000
presidential election – a seismic event determined by the US Supreme
Court – might have gone the other way if disenfranchised felons had been
able to vote.

George
W. Bush (R) poses with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore as Bush meets
with recipients of the 2007 Nobel Awards. Photo / Getty Images

The outcome was decided by 537 votes in Florida,
the key swing state which has some of America’s strictest rules on
allowing ex-felons to vote.
“We can only speculate,” says Marc
Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. “But on the day of
that national election there were an estimated 600,000 ex-felons in
Florida who were not able to participate in the vote. How many would
have voted? How would they vote? We can only guess. But I think it’s
certainly quite possible a national election was decided based on
disenfranchisement policies in that one state.”

It was a near run thing that haunts presidential candidates as
on the eve of the August 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act –
following a year of charged racial clashes and growing anger about
inequality – the old spectre of racism stalks the growing field for the
2016 national election.
The Sentencing Project report also
concluded that disenfranchisement “likely affected the results of seven
US Senate races from 1970 to 1998”. It’s no surprise Florida was the
epicentre of the most disputed White House election result in the last
century.
The Sunshine State, along with Kentucky, Iowa and
Virginia, bans some ex-felons from voting for life. Their democratic
rights can only be restored if the state governor grants clemency. This
extraordinary state of affairs is a toxic legacy of the post-Civil War
period when, explains Mauer, “some southern states very consciously
tailored their disenfranchisement statutes to exclude” blacks.
They
often did this by targeting offences believed to be commonly committed
by blacks. So, South Carolina ruled black men who beat their wives lost
the vote. But anyone convicted of killing his wife did not.
“While
it’s debatable whether felony disenfranchisement laws today are
intended to reduce the political clout of communities of colour”, argues
the Sentencing Project, “this is their undeniable effect”. The main
instrument of exclusion from the voting rolls has been the 40-year war
on drugs, in which young black males are disproportionately locked up.
Between
1960 and 1976 disenfranchisement rates dropped. Thereafter, as the drug
war kicked in, this trend reversed with the prison population rising
from 1.17 million in 1976 to 5.85 million in 2011 of whom 2.2 million
were black [13 per cent of the US population]. While one in 40 citizens
is disenfranchised nationwide, this rises to one in 13 for blacks. In
Florida, Kentucky and Virginia one in five blacks is disenfranchised.
The
2015 Human Rights Watch world report said blacks made up 31 per cent of
all US drugs arrests, plus 41 per cent of state and 42 per cent of
federal prisoners jailed for drug crimes. Even though black and white
Americans “engage in drug offences at comparable rates”, the former were
“nearly four times more likely … to be arrested for marijuana
possession”. Even being free does not guarantee the vote. Many of the
disenfranchised have served their time but remain under supervision:
parole or probation. Only Vermont and Maine have no restrictions and
allow all felons to vote.
“The ripple effects on minority
communities have been substantial,” says Mauer. “It’s gone well beyond
any legitimate public safety concerns.” But change is in the air. Last
year, Attorney-General Eric Holder said it was “time to fundamentally
rethink laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer
under federal or state supervision”.
Stigmatising ex-felons
increased the likelihood they would reoffend, he said, citing a Florida
study that found enfranchising felons reduced recidivism rates.
While
much of America remains locked in the past on race, guns and
suppressing minority voters – via gerrymandering, voter ID laws and
disenfranchisement – grassroots anger over well publicised shootings of
young black men by white police has stoked pressure for reform.
This
year, President Barack Obama sat down with David Simon, creator of The
Wire. The acclaimed TV series – eulogised by Obama as “one of the
greatest pieces of art in the last couple of decades” – explores the
drug war’s corrosive impact in Baltimore, an old slave port, and is a
primer for criminal justice reform, a second-term Obama priority. Much
of the show was filmed in poor neighbourhoods where racial tensions
exploded in April, when 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody.
Mass incarceration was “breaking the bank”, said the President, with many offenders denied jobs even as the economy expands.
Last
Monday, Obama commuted the federal sentences of 46 prisoners – 14 doing
life terms – serving time on drug convictions, following 22 similar
commutations in March. Many went down hard for crack cocaine, a scourge
of poor black communities, in the 1980s and 1990s. Crack cocaine brought
harsher terms than more expensive powder cocaine, favoured by
middle-class users. On Tuesday, Obama made the case for reform to the
National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People saying the
US justice system “remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth”
and that mass incarceration makes the US “worse off”.
Once
ex-felons had served their terms, said Obama, they should be able to
vote. He also pressed home his case on Friday during the first visit by a
sitting President to a US prison, the medium security facility at El
Reno, Oklahoma. He has also called for the demilitarisation of police.
Obama
has been careful to build bipartisan support for reform, in part,
emphasising it will cut government spending. Meanwhile, sentencing
reform is gaining traction in Congress – with several bills pending –
and on the campaign trail. In an April speech Democratic favourite
Hillary Clinton said the justice system was out of balance and that it
was time to end mass incarceration. Republican Rand Paul has also taken
up the challenge.
Perhaps they’ve heard rising anger at
grassroots level, as activist groups such as Out4Justice, Communities
United and BlackLivesMatter push for reform.

Focus on human rights as Obama heads to

Workers finish installing a large billboard showing Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, and President Barack Obama, right, in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Photo / AP
Workers finish installing a large billboard
showing Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, and President Barack
Obama, right, in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama’s trip to Kenya and Ethiopia is
drawing fresh criticism that the two countries are heavy-handed on human
rights and basic democratic freedoms.
Obama will become the
first sitting president to visit Kenya, his ancestral
homeland, when he arrives today to attend a business summit and meetings
with President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Obama will become the first US
president to travel to Ethiopia when he lands there on Monday to confer
with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and to address the African
Union.
“While both countries face real security threats, we are
concerned by the way in which each government has responded, often with
abusive security measures and increased efforts to stifle civil society
and the media,” Human Rights Watch and other advocacy organisations and
analysts said in a letter to Obama.
“Many of these initiatives
undermine core human rights protections and the rule of law and are also
counterproductive when it comes to reducing insecurity.”
Obama,
who left Washington yesterday, said one of the themes he will stress
on the trip is that the economic growth that Africans seek depends on
good governance, including free and fair elections; strong, democratic
institutions; freedom of speech and the press; vibrant civic
participation and respect for human rights.
“Some African nations
have made impressive progress on these fronts,” he said in an opinion
piece published yesterday by The Root, a website with a largely
African-American audience. “Others have not. My trip will be an
opportunity to address these issues candidly, both publicly and
privately in my meetings with leaders.”
Meanwhile, Nigerian
President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday said his country was confident it
could defeat terrorism – but he also charged that the US had “aided and
abetted” the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, citing the role played
by a US human rights law. His comments came on the same day bomb blasts
by Boko Haram killed 29 people in Nigeria and 24 in Cameroon, according
to officials.
Buhari, making his first trip to the US since
being elected in March, blamed what is often called the “Leahy law”.
This law originally focused on US assistance to Colombia’s armed forces
but has gradually been expanded to prohibit US taxpayer funds from being
given to any foreign military units that have been involved in gross
human rights violations.
Buhari told an audience at the US Institute
of Peace that the “blanket application of the Leahy law by the United
States on the grounds of unproven allegations of human rights violations
levelled against our forces has denied us access to appropriate
strategic weapons to prosecute the war against the insurgents.”
“Unwittingly
and, I dare say, unintentionally the application of the Leahy law …
has aided and abetted the Boko Haram terrorists in the prosecution of
its extremist ideology and hate, the indiscriminate killings and maiming
of civilians, the raping of women and girls and other heinous crimes,”
he added. “I know the American people cannot support any group engaged
in these crimes.”
Nigeria’s military has been accused of human
rights violations on several occasions. Earlier this year, an Amnesty
International report said Nigerian troops had caused the deaths of more
than 8000 civilians since 2009.
It is also true that concerns
about human rights abuses by the Nigerian military have complicated US
involvement in the fight against Boko Haram. Last year, the US blocked a
sale of attack helicopters from Israel to Nigeria.
However,
Buhari’s comments appeared to misinterpret the Leahy law. Lora Lumpe, a
senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundation, explained that
the law can prohibit funding only from the US Treasury, and, as such,
the sale of arms and technology is not included.

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