For Blacks in the United States, the journey to the ballot box has always been a challenging one. And for millions of African Americans, who figure prominently among the nearly 6 million citizens who cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws, the road to the polls remains a steep one.
Kemba Smith Pradia, whose case drew national attention, is still barred from voting in her home state of Virginia—more than a decade after receiving a presidential pardon.
“It’s impacted me psychologically,” she said of the inability to vote, “because I’m a productive, tax-paying citizen and the only other people who aren’t allowed to vote are people with mental disabilities and minorities.
“This country’s disenfranchisement laws prevent me from being a full citizen.”
Pradia, now an author and ex-offender rights advocate, is among the key figures in a nationwide NAACP campaign to advocate for the restoration of voting rights of millions of ex-felons.
She is a convicted felon whose romantic link to a drug dealer resulted in her incarceration, making her a poster child for unfair drug sentencing laws and was a speaker in the launch Oct. 2 in Florida of the NAACP drive to restore the voting franchise for ex-offenders, where ex-felons were recently stripped of their right to vote.
“We believe everyone has the right to cast and unfettered vote and have it counted,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau director and senior vice president for policy and advocacy.
He added, “We see no acceptable reason for someone’s right to vote to be taken from them because they’ve committed a crime.”
According to a study by the Sentencing Project, 5.85 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of felon disenfranchisement, a figure that has mushroomed over time. And, African Americans are disproportionately impacted by those laws. About one in 13 African Americans of voting age—more than 2 million in all—is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans, the study asserted.
The effect is the “the muting of the voices of people, who live in African-American communities,” arguably, the very people who need the power of the ballot box the most, Shelton said.
But, as history shows, muting the voices of the Black electorate seemed to be the historical intent of these laws. In one infamous example, during the 1901 Constitutional Convention in Virgina, where lawmakers met to hash out voting laws after the passage of the 15th Amendment,
Delegate Carter Glass boasted of felon disenfranchisement and other Jim Crow-inspired voting laws, “This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county…will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
Given such a racist history, “it seems right to make things right,” Pradia said, and states should be clamoring to correct this historic wrong.
Eleven states permanently disenfranchise at least some ex-felons unless the government approves individual rights restoration and four of those—Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia—permanently disenfranchise all former felony convicts.
Other states have increasingly non-restrictive laws, with some automatically restoring the right to vote after ex-felons serve their time and complete parole and probation. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, do not take away that right at all. Prisoners can even vote by absentee ballot while they’re incarcerated.
“Most industrialized countries in the world are the same way,” Shelton said, making the U.S. one of the strictest nations when it comes to denying the right to vote to citizens convicted of crime.
Even the process of restoring the vote can become prohibitive—incurring unwieldy costs and paperwork that discourage former felons.
“It is a hit-and-miss,” said of the success rate of such applications, “but it’s a process that has left millions disenfranchised.
“Many prisoners come out being confused about what their rights are and what the process is to restore their vote and they don’t even try.”
Others mistakenly register to vote and end up getting in trouble. For example, in 2004, about 1,100 former felons in Richmond, Va., registered to vote and their ballots were eventually rescinded.
“You shouldn’t have to jump through hoops and over hurdles to exercise the basic right to vote,” Pradia said.
“If you want someone to reintegrate into society successfully, you shouldn’t isolate them or make them feel like they’re not worthy, even when they’re trying to do the right thing. It could make them start to think, ‘Why bother?’”
The NAACP’s public education and advocacy campaign will feature billboards of formerly incarcerated citizens from across the country, including celebrity activists Judge Greg Mathis and actor Charles S. Dutton.
“We want to make sure people understand what the policies are and to let ex-felons know what the laws are and the process for reinstating their right to vote,” Shelton explained.
State NAACP conferences will also lobby state legislatures and governors to change the laws.