As campaign workers toil to get out the vote this election season, there is a large and growing constituency across the United States they can pretty much write off: convicted felons.
It has nothing to do with the fact that many of these men and women live behind bars and are unable to get to the polls. Rather, the problem is that most automatically lost their right to vote when they were found guilty.
For many, it is a right they will never regain.
Close to 4 million Americans will be excluded from the political process this year, including roughly 13 percent of the country's black adult men.
In seven states, 25 percent of African-American men are permanently barred from casting a ballot. In two states - Florida and Alabama - nearly one-third of all African-American men can't vote.
These are among the findings of a report released yesterday by The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch that calls on lawmakers to repeal felon-disenfranchisement laws.
"Disenfranchisement laws in the US are a vestige of medieval times, when offenders were banished from the community," the report says. Instead, laws should attempt to facilitate full rehabilitation of felons as productive taxpaying citizens who have a stake in the democratic process.
Current policies, the report warns, are creating a huge pool of political outcasts in America. "We know of no other country in the world that permanently disenfranchises ex-offenders," says Jamie Fellner, coauthor of the report and associate counsel at New York's Human Rights Watch.
"It really offends the average American's concept of justice," says Mark Mauer, assistant director at The Sentencing Project in Washington and a report coauthor. "We are raised to believe that once you have paid your debt to society you are free to resume your normal activities."
Disenfranchisement laws, which in some states date back to Colonial times, are supported in large part because they are seen as another way to punish criminals, beyond fining them and locking them up.
But the attraction goes beyond punishment. Some supporters are concerned that convicts and ex-felons might determine the outcome of elections. On a national level, this seems unlikely. But at the local level, judges and sheriffs sometimes win elections by a handful of votes. A get-tough-on-crime sheriff might have a hard time being reelected if all those inmates and ex-convicts suddenly become voters.
Critics say these concerns are outweighed by the detrimental effect such laws have on the democratic process. Laws that seek to guarantee or prevent a certain outcome at the polls are inherently undemocratic, they say.
THEY also point to the long-term negative impact such laws are having in some minority communities, where young men are being locked up at record rates in a war on drugs that disproportionately targets inner-city neighborhoods. The result is that African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately losing their right to vote, causing a huge drain on potential political power at a time when minority communities are struggling to assert themselves at the polls.
Prior to losing the vote, however, few inmates exercised that privilege. In Massachusetts, one of four states that still give inmates the right to vote, less than 10 percent of inmates are registered. In Utah, less than 5 percent of inmates are registered, and only 60 inmates cast ballots in the last election. But since a measure to take away the right to vote was put on the November ballot, opponents say, the proportion of registered inmates there has jumped to 30 percent.
Some analysts believe the large-scale disenfranchisement under way in the African-American community in particular violates the Voting Rights Act and equal-protection clauses of the Constitution. But few elected officials are willing to take on a cause that would likely be portrayed by political opponents as an effort to empower convicted murderers, rapists, and drug dealers.
"In the political climate we live in today, no politician and no group of constituents are going to go to bat for these folks, and that is why the courts have to do something about it," says Andrew Shapiro, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. "This is a classic case of why we need courts to act as guardians of our civil rights."
To date, no one has successfully challenged disenfranchisement laws in court. But Mr. Mauer and Ms. Fellner hope that the report will raise national awareness and spark new legal and legislative challenges.
BARRED FROM THE POLLS
Disenfranchisement laws form a patchwork of regulations across the country.
* The District of Columbia and 46 states bar inmates from voting. Many continue the ban through any period of probation or parole.
* Ten states require lifetime disenfranchisement for all convicted felons. Two other states require a lifetime voting ban after conviction for a second felony.
* Only four states permit inmates to vote: Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Utah. But that list may grow even shorter: Both Massachusetts and Utah are taking steps that would bar inmates from voting.