By Howard Henderson and Jennifer Wyatt Bourgeois*
Despite major breakthroughs in the American democratic experience, race and gender-based inequalities remain. Excluding Blacks from the vote has been one of the most consistent realities of the post emancipation journey. In fact, during Reconstruction, Black persons were more likely to be lynched in the periods leading up to an election. At this very moment, Blacks are four times as likely to lose their voting rights as any other racial/ethnic group, to the tune of 1.8 million citizens. For context, over 400 voter suppression bills have been proposed in 48 states by policymakers laser focused on reintroducing Jim Crow and his racially motivated barriers to civil inclusion.
The right to vote is central to democracy. Despite the presence of five amendments protecting this time- honored practice, there are 5.2 million individuals disenfranchised from voting due to their felony status, seventy-five percent of whom are currently on probation, parole, or have served their debt to society. In fact, only Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated individuals to vote. Note that research has found a significant relationship between perceived racial threat and the presence of felony disenfranchisement laws.
Hervis Rogers, a 62-year-old parole, was arrested in early July 2021 and released on a $100,000 bond. A cursory review of the U.S. Department of Justice’s offense-specific bail amounts would highlight the median bail amount for robbery is $20,000, rape is $25,000, and murder is $100,000.
This man’s crime? Voting while on parole. In effect, voting while on parole landed Mr. Rogers with a bail amount typically reserved for accused murderers.
In March 2020, Rogers made national news when he waited in line for six hours to vote in the presidential primary race. More than a year later, Texas Attorney General Ken Patton ordered Rogers’ arrest on the grounds of illegal voting while 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 the end of his parole on June 13, 2020, and argues that he was not aware he could not vote.
Rogers’ story is similar to over five million others, and it underscores a crisis that’s been covered up for generations: the silencing of citizens under criminal justice supervision, many of whom are Black or Brown.
The Crisis of Incarcerating Our Democracy
We recently published a report, Incarcerating Democracy, taking an in-depth look at the voter suppression tactics exercised in the 2020 presidential election. Despite the presence of five amendments protecting this time-honored practice, it’s estimated that over 5.2 million citizens were unable to vote in the 2020 election cycle due to a felony conviction,75% of whom are currently on probation, parole, or have served their debt to society. What’s more, at least four states disenfranchise all prisoners and parolees, and 16 states limit the vote of those in prison, on parole, or on probation. In Florida, formerly incarcerated individuals are prohibited from voting until they no longer have any outstanding court fees and fines associated with their prior convictions. For some individuals, these costs were as high as $53,000. By the end of it, only Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated individuals to vote.
Compared to the 2016 election, the number of felonied persons barred from voting has decreased, but the attempts to systematically exclude civil engagement have not. Due to a current or prior felony conviction, 1 out of every 44 individuals – 2.27 percent of the entire voting-eligible population in the United States – is disenfranchised. The Sentencing Project found felony disenfranchisement practices and policies have a disparate impact on Black communities, with Black Americans being four times more likely to lose their voting rights. In the 2016 election, out of the 6.1 million Americans banned from voting, 36% or 2.2. million were Black persons. Research has found that felony disenfranchisement hinders the reentry process and increases the odds of recidivism.
The ongoing attempts to limit representative government, by way of voter suppression, is an unnecessary disposition that curtails the foundation of our democracy and can no longer be swept under the rug.
Repeating 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 working-class members. As columnist Charles Blow stated in his New York Times op-ed, “the determinative white vote and white voice is in danger not because of shifts in values and demographics, but because of deceit and chicanery. As such, they must pass laws to crack down and ensure the purity of the vote. They don’t want to bolster the vote, but to bleach it.”
However, this is only one of several interconnected vehicles used to silence Black communities across the nation. 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 Black individuals and 33 percent of Hispanic individuals. On the basis of outstanding legal financial obligations, several states continue to disenfranchise some persons far after they have paid their debts to society and are no longer under criminal justice supervision. Not only are Black Americans disproportionately at risk of being incarcerated and losing their voting rights, but the likelihood of being granted parole and eventually reinstating those rights is also unjustly granted.
This is not our first rodeo with the use of the criminal justice system as a voter suppression tool. 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 cry for equal voter representation can no longer fall on deaf ears. This crisis must be addressed – and it can only be by advocating for the rights of individuals like Hervis Rogers, sharing the facts, and connecting the current stories to the days of old.
The Pathway To Progress
As outlined in Incarcerating Democracy, there are three main pathways to addressing the voter suppression crisis hindering our country’s march towards equal representation. First, we must advocate for the rights of convicted felons because they are human. Since 2019, seven states have restored voting rights to convicted citizens, either when released from prison, on parole, or incarcerated. There is undoubtedly more work to be done here, but there is progress on the horizon. Particularly when you consider the prevailing societal consensus that the U.S. criminal justice system that feeds the cycle of unjust arrest, conviction, and incarceration is in dire need of reform.
Secondly, we must continue to support organized legal efforts to address voter suppression. Rogers’ extraordinarily high bail was posted by the Bail Project, a nonprofit organization that provides bail support for low-income individuals and has the backing of a solid legal team, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas. These groups create change right in front of our eyes, and there is a dire need to support these grassroots organizations that can help the Hervis Rogers’ among us.
Finally, we need to address the root of all these issues: the utilization of the U.S. criminal justice system, a supporter of a caste system. African Americans and Latinos comprise 29% of the U.S. population, yet they account for 57% of the nation’s prison population. Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned compared to their white counterparts. And, in a given year, 2 million young people under the age of 18 are arrested, of which minority youth are overrepresented. There’s a problem here, and it can only be addressed with culturally responsive, evidence-based solutions that support federal, state, and local policies which increase access to the democratic process, all of which are necessary for a more representative democracy.
*About the authors: Howard Henderson and Jennifer Wyatt Bourgeois (Post Doctoral Fellow – Center for Justice Research, Texas Southern University)