Democracy and Disenfranchisement Don’t Go Together

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Former Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized the need for criminal justice reform in his speech Tuesday at the Democratic National Convention. Holder, who served as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States from 2009 to 2015, addressed a variety of topics within the movement, including community and law enforcement relations, progress made under the Obama administration, and voting rights. 

Holder began by declaring it “a time when the bonds between law enforcement and communities of color have frayed – when assassins target police in heinous attacks, and peaceful citizens have to question whether black lives truly matter.” 

 This even-handed acknowledgement of recent highly publicized violence both by and against police officers set the tone for the rest of his speech, in which he continued to carefully balance criticism of and respect for law enforcement. He exemplified this balance when calling for the realization that “keeping our officers safe is not inconsistent with ensuring that those in law enforcement treat the people they are sworn to serve with dignity, respect, and fairness. We must commit ourselves to both goals.” As criminal justice reform becomes more and more of a nonpartisan movement, this kind of rhetoric that appeals to the entire political spectrum is essential. 

However, Holder did not refrain from directly addressing the racial injustice embedded in the justice system, saying, “At a time when our justice system is out of balance, when one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, and when black defendants in the federal system receive sentences 20 percent longer than their white peers, we need a president who will end this policy of over-incarceration.”  

Holder next discussed progress, saying, “As Attorney General, I launched sweeping reforms of our federal criminal justice system and reduced its reliance on draconian mandatory minimum sentences. As a result, we cut the federal prison population and the crime rate – together – for the first time in more than 40 years.”  

This pattern of simultaneously falling incarceration and violent crime rates does not just appear at the federal level: over the last ten years, 27 states have seen this occur. These are accomplishments well worth celebrating, and Holder encouraged the audience to do so. He also took the opportunity to note that “despite the fiction and fear-mongering you’ve heard from the other party’s nominee, violent crime has gone down since President Obama took office.” Indeed, since 2006, the national crime rate has fallen 23 percent (alongside the imprisonment rate falling 7 percent). 

Holder’s final point was that “the right to vote is under siege – when Republicans brazenly assault the most fundamental right of our democracy – passing laws designed to stop people from voting, while closing locations in minority neighborhoods where people get the documents they need to vote – we need a president sensitive to these echoes of Jim Crow [,] who holds the right to vote as sacred. 

Although these threats to voting rights are real and immediate, Holder did not mention the most immediate of them all — most immediate because it has existed for as long as our country, and until fairly recently was unquestioned: the disenfranchisement of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. 

In all but two states, incarcerated people cannot vote. In 34 states, people in prison, on parole, or on probation lose the right to vote. In Florida, Iowa, and Virginia, people convicted of felonies are permanently disenfranchised. 5.8 million Americans cannot vote because of felony conviction, and, like the 2.3 million Americans incarcerated, these people are disproportionately black. One in every 13 black Americans has lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement laws, as opposed to one in every 56 non-black voters. This pattern of black disenfranchisement is one of the driving arguments behind Michelle Alexander’s characterization of modern-day mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow. 

In the last several years, some states have worked to change this injustice, including Delaware, Wyoming, and Virginia. However, although there has been progress, not all of it has been upheld. In 2016, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe ordered the automatic restoration of voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their prison sentence and their term of supervised release (parole or probation) as of April 22nd.  

In July, the Virginia Supreme Court overturned this order. Outgoing Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear attempted a similar order in 2015, but his successor Governor Matt Bevin reversed this order as one of his first acts in office. South Dakota and Tennessee have taken similar steps backwards. 

The right to vote is, as Holder says, “the most fundamental right of our democracy.” Fundamental rights should not be withheld on the basis of criminal record, particularly in a country where racial discrimination exists at every stage of the criminal justice system. 

Holder concluded his speech by saying, “This pivotal election is about much more than politics. It’s about the arc we are on, as a nation; the composition of our character, as a people; and the ideals – of equality, opportunity, and justice – that have always made America great.” 

Many Americans agree that these ideals are worth defending, and many will vote to do so. Some, however, won’t have the chance.

The post was written by EIO Member Emma Hattemer.

Author: eiocoalition

The Education from the Inside Out Coalition seeks to remove statutory and practical educational barriers for individuals with criminal justice involvement by educating policymakers and advocating for policy change. We work with federal, state and local government officials, along with educational institutions across the nation, providing technical assistance and other support.

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