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Black Ex-Felons Could Have Made The Difference For Al Gore

It is a paradoxical situation. If it turns out that Al Gore loses Florida and the Electoral College to George W. Bush, he may have more to blame than malfunctioning ballot machines and Nader supporters. If he and his supporters are honest, they may have to blame the Clinton -Gore administration and a criminal justice system that locked up Blacks wholesale, over the last 8 years, for non-violent offenses.

Because 13 percent of all Black men can not vote because of incarceration and past felony convictions, and because this presidential election is so close, it may very well prove to be true that Blacks who have served their time in prison and gone on to lead productive and reformed lives, could have provided the margin of victory for Al Gore and Democrats in Congressional races, if they were allowed to vote.

This very real possibility is based on the expectation that party affiliations for Black ex-offenders would mirror those in the larger Black population - with Blacks overwhelmingly registered as Democrats.

A very dear friend of mine who campaigned on behalf of Al Gore told me that in her Get-Out-The Vote (GOTV) efforts she heard over and over again, from the Blacks that she made outreach to, that they could not vote because of their criminal records. In addition to this, several of my friends and I have people close to them who have lost the right to vote because of their criminal records.

And because this dilemma affects Blacks at a much higher clip than other groups, it may very well have determined the outcome of the 2000 elections in the race for the presidency and in several congressional races. And maybe even more dramatically, it may have determined the outcome in hotly contested Florida. In Florida, it is believed that 1 in 3 Black men have lost their right to vote because of criminal justice issues.

And it does not end there, pull out an electoral map and the voting returns and compare it to the Reuters article that follows. You can see that the outcome of the 2000 presidential race, at least, was affected by the incarceration of Blacks:

Friday November 3 4:12 PM ET

13 Percent of Black Men in America Have No Vote

By Mary Gabriel

- With efforts to get out the vote in full swing ahead of Tuesday's election, activists hoping to rally minority communities face a legal roadblock -- 13 percent of black men have lost the right to vote because of incarceration or past felony convictions. In Alabama and Florida, one study found, the total is as high as one in three.

"About 1.8 million men are disenfranchised within the African-American community," said Keenan Keller, minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, where a bill to extend voting rights to ex-offenders has languished for more than a year. "In certain swing states, the number of folks who are disenfranchised could actually have a direct impact on the election," he said, adding that because of aggressive policing linked to the war on drugs the impact on future elections could be great. "You have the situation where juveniles can lose the right to vote before they even get it," he said.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes alternative sentencing programs, reports that in 47 states and the District of Columbia, all convicted adults in prison are denied voting rights while they are incarcerated. Thirty two states also deny paroled felons the right to vote, 29 deny felons on probation the vote, and in 13 states ex-offenders lose their voting rights for life.

Only Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts allow prisoners convicted of felonies to vote. But that right is on the ballot in Massachusetts on Tuesday when voters will be asked to decide whether to disenfranchise prisoners in that state.

Laws Based On Civil Death Laws denying criminals the right to vote have been on the books in the United States for 200 years. They are based on the belief that those who break the law should suffer ``civil death'' and forfeit some rights.

Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Equal Opportunity, has testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the issue. He said there are good reasons why the criminal disenfranchisement law should be maintained. ``The basic point is that somebody who is not willing to follow the law should not have a role in making the laws for everyone else. That's what you're doing when you vote,'' Clegg said in a telephone interview. ``There has to be some sort of minimum threshold of trustworthiness or loyalty an individual must have before they have a role in running the government.'' But those advocating a change say the old ``civil death'' laws could not have envisioned a society in which millions of people -- convicted of crimes ranging from murder to non-violent theft -- lose their right to vote. They say once a criminal has served their sentence they should be free to participate in the political process.

Like the dark days of segregation, when laws were manufactured to keep blacks out of the voting booth, some today are reviewing the rules governing voting rights for felons to see whether they disproportionately affect the African-American community and muzzle its political voice.

In all, 4.2 million Americans -- either current prison inmates or ex-offenders -- are not allowed to vote. Of those, more than one third are black, according to The Sentencing Project. That amounts to 13 percent of all black men. "We estimate in our report that for black males born today, in the most restrictive states, 30 to 40 percent of them will lose their voting rights at some point in their life," said Mark Mauer, the group's assistant director.

In 1998, The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch looked at the extent of criminal disenfranchisement and found that in Alabama and Florida, 31 percent of all black men were permanently disenfranchised. In five other states -- Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia and Wyoming -- one in four black men were permanently disenfranchised, and in Texas one in five black men had lost the right to vote.

In September, The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law filed suit in federal court in Florida challenging the constitutionality of the state's permanent disenfranchisement of ex-felons. Nancy Northup, director of The Brennan Center's Democracy Program and lead attorney in the case, said the state's law is designed to discriminate against African Americans. ``It violates the voting rights act because it continues to discriminate against African American voters,'' she said.

For months, we have argued that the high incarceration rates which have largely occurred under the Clinton-Gore administration and due to racial disparities in sentencing, were making the unemployment rate in the Black community look artificially low. We have said that if the incarceration rate of Blacks is figured into the unemployment statistics, the Black unemployment rate is almost 10% and not near 7% as the Clinton-Gore administration and mainstream media argue.

And for years, we have seen die-hard Black Democrats go along with White Democrats who were praising the Clinton-Gore administration for being tough on crime, even in the face of data that clearly demonstrates that Blacks were being disproportionately arrested and receiving stiffer sentences than their white counterparts.

And it has been the Clinton-Gore administration that has ignored or offered soft support to efforts by Congressional Black Caucus members like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) who have tried to correct this problem.

Now, in dramatic fashion, the criminal justice system crisis that has devastated Black families in terms of economics and the break-up of two-parent homes, may have cost the Democrats the White House.

While it may be easier-to-swallow and sexier to blame Ralph Nader and some ballot box shenanigans that may have gone on in Florida for a possible Gore defeat - Democrats, and Black Democrats, in particular - may want to consider the contribution that the "tough-on-crime" policies of the Clinton-Gore administration and New Democrats made to taking Blacks out of the voting process in the last 8 years.

It may have cost them an election.

Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, November 8, 2000

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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