Why Felon Disenfranchisement Is A Feminist Issue

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On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving American women the right to vote. Ninety-seven years later, more women than men exercise their right to vote. But the passage of the 19th Amendment was not the end of disenfranchisement in this country. Until the middle of the 20th century, racist Jim Crow laws in the South prevented Black people from voting, and today, GOP legislatures across the country are introducing policies that will unequivocally make it more difficult for minorities to cast a ballot. And there’s still one group of people who can have their right to vote stripped from them, sometimes permanently: in America, felons are systematically disenfranchised, and even though the majority of felons are men, restoring their right to vote is a feminist issue.

Felon disenfranchisement is an enormous form of voter suppression in the United States. According to The Sentencing Project, 6.1 million Americans can’t vote because of a prior felony conviction; that’s a little less than three percent of the total voting age population. (A felony, by the way, is any crime that’s serious enough to merit a term in a state or federal prison, rather than a county jail.) Only two states allow felons to retain their right to vote unrestricted: Maine and Vermont. The rest of the U.S. takes away voting rights for felons either while they’re serving their sentence, until their parole or probation is over, or in some cases, for the rest of their lives. Kentucky, Florida, and Iowa disenfranchise felons forever; Virginia made headlines in 2016 for restoring the right to vote to felons who had served their sentences.

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The direct impact of felon disenfranchisement on elections, and by extension, on policy, is so wide-ranging as to be inestimable. Bridgett King, a government professor at Auburn University, tells Bustle via email that there’s research to suggest that citizens with felony convictions are “more aligned with the Democratic Party.” In this day and age, despite many issues with the Dems, voting blue often means voting for a progressive, pro-women agenda. One study from 2003 even found that if felons in Florida were able to vote in the 2000 election, they would have solidly delivered Al Gore the electoral votes needed to become president. “I think the biggest potential impact [of restoring felon’s voting rights] would be changes to the individuals who are elected,” said King. “You might then see a reversal in the number of state legislatures that are implementing policies to limit options for women’s reproductive health.”

Restoring felon’s voting rights would have clear benefits for marginalized people. The United States has the highest population of incarcerated people on Earth, and a disproportionate number of those incarcerated are Black; it doesn’t take too much mental legwork to draw the connection between felon disenfranchisement and racially-motivated voter suppression. Black voters, too, tend to vote Democratic, with 89 percent of the demographic turning out for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “The intersectional politics of many Black women voters means that they often support policies beneficial to broad sections of the electorate, but particularly those who are marginalized,” Melynda Price, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, tells Bustle. Taking the right to vote away from Black women (and men) diminishes their say on issues that affect not just them, but other groups of people that a majority white, male electorate tends not to take into account.

It's our duty to think about the political interests of everyone, of every woman — especially the most marginalized.

It’s crucial to note that women make up only a small percentage of the total population of felons in the United States, but a quickly increasing percentage. Around 111,000 women are currently incarcerated in America, while in 2004, it was estimated that around 800,000 were ineligible to vote because of their felon status. That number has likely grown along with the prison population which, for women, has increased at double the rate of men’s. “If these trends continue, we will see more and more women who lose the right to vote in addition to other rights/privileges that are lost with a felony conviction,” said King. “The tendency is to put a male face on the issue, but it impacts women and children at alarmingly high rates,” Price told Bustle.

Even women who aren’t felons are adversely affected by their parent’s, partner’s, or children’s inability to vote. “We tend to think about the broader effects in terms of political engagement and participation in the communities where returning citizens who have been disenfranchised live,” Emily Beaulieu, a comparative politics professor at the University of Kentucky, tells Bustle. Research she conducted with King and Price has found “lower inclinations to vote among individuals who know more people with felony convictions” as well as “lower voter turnout in precincts with more individuals who have been disenfranchised due to felony convictions,” suggesting that even when men alone lose their right to vote, women in their community tend not to exercise their right to vote.

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On the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, anything that is keeping women from exercising their hard-won right to vote, either via direct voter suppression or indirect influence, is a problem that modern feminists need to address head-on. Beyond the practical issues that not being able to vote present, it’s an imperative of feminism today to right this wrong. “If you think of feminism as the belief in the fundamental equality of men and women, then any industry that is actively working to perpetuate inequality should be problematic for feminists,” says Beaulieu. “For those of us who are privileged enough not to have the label of a felon, it's our duty to think about the political interests of everyone, of every woman — especially the most marginalized,” civil rights activist Johnetta Elzie tells Bustle.

If today you have the right to vote because of the 19th Amendment, remember that it’s your duty to exercise it — in your local elections and midterms, too — on behalf of all women who can’t. You can also donate to The Sentencing Project or the Brennan Center for Justice to help them continue their work against felon disenfranchisement, or contact your legislators to tell them why felons deserve the right to vote. Here’s hoping the rest of the country follows Maine and Vermont’s lead, and restores voting rights to all citizens.

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