Episode 142: Quickie: 6.1 MILLION people


Jessa: Hey everybody. I’m Jessa.


Nick: I’m Nick.


Jessa: And this is a special election day episode of Getting Off.


Nick: Right. And what makes it special? It’s special because we’re doing it on election day, and so what might we be talking about on election day? How about the ability to vote? The right to vote? Well, the right to vote is one thing. The ability to exercise that right is a different one.


Jessa: Right. So here’s what I want to talk about today. I’m not gonna talk about who you’re voting, who you should vote for. That’s not what we’re about. But I do want to talk about the 6.1 million people who live in this country that currently find themselves disenfranchised and unable to vote because of a prior felony conviction. That’s right. Let me say it again. 6.1 million people and that data is from the Sentencing Projects, an expansive 2016 study about felony disenfranchisement or laws that restrict voting rights for those convicted of felony level crimes. So some fun facts. 2.5% of the total US voting age population, which translates to 1 in 40 adults, is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction. People who have completed their sentences in 12 states, you’re actually disenfranchised even post sentencing, and those 12 states make up over half of the entire disenfranchised population, totalling almost 3.1 million people. And rates of disenfranchisement vary dramatically due to the broad variations in voting prohibitions. And in six states, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia, more than 7% of the adult voting age population is disenfranchised. The state of Florida alone accounts for more than a quarter and that’s 27% of disenfranchised population nationally. And that means that nearly 1.5 million individual disenfranchised post sentence is Florida account for nearly half of the national total, and I think Florida’s got felon voting rights on the ballot.


Nick: That’s my understanding. Like, now.


Jessa: Yeah. Like, today.


Nick: Like, currently. Right.


Jessa: 1 in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non African Americans. Over 7.4% of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8% of the non African American population. And that, of course, also varies by state. In Florida, 21% of African American voting age people are disenfranchised. Kentucky, it’s at 26%. Tennessee, 21%. And Virginia is at 22%. And in those four states, more than 1 in 5 African Americans are disenfranchised and unable to vote. Why is that?


Nick: Well, I mean. The idea behind some of this stuff goes back in time. People who have broken the laws of society lose all sorts of rights and benefits of that society, including the ability to participate in democracy, and that goes back even, in certain ways, back to the Greeks. But I think that you and I both have strong feelings that this particular form of disenfranchisement in this country, which is the most punitive in the world in this particular regard, as well as in other regards, is connected to other historical factors.


Jessa: Correct. You and I do share that belief.


Nick: Bryan Stevenson has written about the fact that Alabama has recently, in 2017, just last year, voted to restore the franchise to some people who had previously been disenfranchised. But in the 21st century, the number of African American men who were disenfranchised was approaching the level that had been disenfranchised prior to the Voting Rights Act in the late 1960. People have been disenfranchised through Jim Crow practices. And if you’ve watched the documentary “13th”, which is available on Netflix, at least in the United States, you will hear a discussion about that and related topics. That’s the Thirteenth Amendment did, in fact, do away with slavery as it existed, but also said that that, you could not enslave people but for those convicted of crimes. And so, thus began a new..


Jessa: A more creative way to suppress voting rights.


Nick: A rose by a different name.


Jessa: A more creative way. And in case people were wondering, there are only two states in the country where there is no disenfranchisement for people with criminal convictions. Those are Maine and Vermont. There are several states that automatically restore your rights at various points in the process. So in the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah, voting rights are restored upon release from prison. In California, Colorado, Connecticut, and Louisiana, your voting rights are automatically restored after release from prison and discharged from parole, but if you’re on felony probation, you can vote. A number of states, Wisconsin included, automatically restore rights after you’re off supervision, whether that be probation or parole. And that’s Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washinging, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and I missed a couple in there. But. Oh, Nevada and, whatever the hell the abbreviation for AR is.


Nick: Arkansas.


Jessa: Alright. Well then, Alaska is the other one I missed.


Nick: Alaska then.


Jessa: I’m having trouble reading today. There are a number of states that have permanent disenfranchisement for at least some people with criminal convictions, unless the government specifically approves restoration and that happens in Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee, and Wyoming. And then it looks like Iowa, Florida, and Kentucky have permanent disenfranchisement for all people with any felony conviction unless there’s an individual rights application and restoration. That’s part of what Florida is, at least potentially, attempting to change. Or they’re maybe..


Nick: Right. So part of what we’re talking about here is pretty variation across the.United States. And it is state by state, over what the effect on your ability to vote your criminal history might have. So here in Wisconsin, as always, what we’re most familiar with, people in Wisconsin, you cannot vote while you are under a sentence from a felony conviction. So if you’ve been sentenced to prison, you can’t vote. If you were sentenced to prison, and then released from prison on to what we now call extended supervision, you can’t vote during that period of time. If you’re on probation from a felony conviction, you can’t vote until you’re off probation. But once your sentence has concluded, once you complete the prison sentence and the extended supervision portion of it, once you complete your period of probation, once that’s over under Wisconsin, they say your civil rights are restored to you, included among those are your ability to vote. So you automatically get it back in Wisconsin. In other states, you have the ability to get it back. You might have to do something after the completion of your sentence to try to get it back. And in the most punitive states, many of which are southern, you lose it permanently. That is the case still in some places, and in places like Alabama and Florida, they may be making some modifications to that.


Jessa: Right. And there are a variety of other quirky things, like Nebraska imposes a two year waiting period after you complete your sentence..


Nick: Perfect example.


Jessa: But then they’ll restore, unless you’re convicted of treason, then not so much. Virginia’s constitution actually imposes permanent disenfranchisement, but allows the governor to restore rights. Current governer’s policy individually restores voting rights to those who have completed their sentences and prioritizes those with the earliest completed sentences and those who apply. In Louisiana, you have to have made it five years without being incarcerated and otherwise qualify as a voter. Massachusetts will, anyone, they look at the type of conviction and so if there’s specifically a conviction for corrupt practices in respect to elections, then it can be more difficult to get reinstated. And then just recently in New York, Governor Cuomo, back in April of 2018, announced that by executive order, he’d restore the right to vote to New Yorkers that were serving their sentences on parole. So he issued an executive order that granted voting rights to roughly 24,000 people who were living and working in their communities, but had not been allowed to vote because of their felon status.


Nick: So here’s an example of some of the history of this. Let me read, may I? From an article about this to give folks a sense of where this comes, in the American context. At the state of Alabama’s constitutional convention in 1901, and I’ve read this document. Lawmakers there amended the state constitution, the Alabama state constitution, to bar from voting anyone convicted of a crime involving quote-unquote “moral turpitude”, which is actually still a legal phrase that survives today in other contexts.


Jessa: Comes up in immigration law.


Nick: Exactly.


Jessa: Yeah.


Nick: The Alabama state constitutional convention of 1901 didn’t define the meaning of that phrase, but they didn’t make a secret about what they meant, what they were trying to accomplish with that. It was intended to preserve quote-unquote “white supremacy in this state”. And to combat quote “the menace of negro domination”, end quote, at, or the potential of that at the ballot box. Governmental authorities in the state of Alabama took advantage of the ambiguity in that phrase about crimes of moral turpitude to apply it to even misdemeanor offences. In particular, offences that recently, you know, recently freed slaves were far more likely to be charged with. One Alabama state lawmaker in the early 20th century, “The crime of wife beating alone would disqualify 60% of the negros” end quote.


Jessa: Sure there’s some rock solid data behind that.


Nick: The United States Supreme Court struck down that..


Jessa: Said “Not so much”.


Nick: Well, it took 84 years. In 1985, the United States Supreme Court struck down that provision of the Alabama state constitution as discriminatory. Weird. But local lawmakers kept it alive by restricting to felonies, right? So it was no longer applicable ambiguously to misdemeanors, but only to felonies. So that, but even with that, you know, slight modification, that workaround, the impact was extraordinarily unequal. It continued to fall, unsurprisingly, I would say, and I don’t think there’s a lot of ambiguity here, intentionally on people of color, particularly African American. 1 in 5 blacks in the state of Alabama were disenfranchised. 20%.


Jessa: And. I mean. Four states, it’s over 1 in 5 as a I read at the beginning of this. So what’s the point? You know. Today. I mean. Today, like most days, I spent my time with a lot of people with felony convictions and some of them mentioned today when I had my sticker on that they wished that they had the opportunity to go do what I got to do. And so whether you agree with me politically or you even know what my politics or you agree or disagree with Nick, there are 6.1 million people who are sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers who work in our communities, who live in our communities, who are part of this country, that do not have the opportunity to exercise their ability to vote and have their voice heard today. So we don’t want any of you to give that up. So we’re releasing this special little quickie with these stats because it is 4pm here in Wisconsin, and maybe this pops up in your feed and you’re like “Oh, I should probably stop on my way home.” So please go do that.


Nick: Because here’s my thing. Do I care who people vote for? Sure.


Jessa: I do.


Nick: I do. I do. But do you know what I care way, way, way more, and I mean this sincerely than who any one of us votes for? Is that we vote at all. Because no matter who wins, your local or your state or a federal election, the results of any election are more valid when more people vote.


Jessa: Absolutely.


Nick: And that is what I am interested in. Let’s have the people that we vote, that we elect in this representative democracy actually be a representation of what we truly want. The results are more valid the more representative they are. The more of us who vote for that, the more of us who choose, the more real they are. And we can’t, I do agree, that you don’t get to complain if you don’t vote.


Jessa: Absolutely. Decisions are made by people that show up. So show up.


Nick: Show up.


Jessa: Show up. That’s really what we got, guys. I’m Jessa.


Nick: I’m Nick.


Jessa: And this was Getting Off.