Bad Takes: Taking voting rights from people convicted of felonies is a form of ballot suppression

Disenfranchisement laws date back to the Jim Crow era, and they primarily targeted Black people, according to experts.

click to enlarge As much as some of us may not like Donald Trump, he's still a citizen with inalienable rights. - Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore
Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore
As much as some of us may not like Donald Trump, he's still a citizen with inalienable rights.
Editor's note: Bad Takes is a column of opinion and analysis.

ou rolling like Trump, you get your meat lumped.” — Raekwon, “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” 1995

If nobody texted you that Donald Trump became the first former president convicted of a felony, then I hope the rock you’re living under provides some shade from this heat.

Trump resides in Florida, which defers to the state of conviction, New York, when determining voter eligibility. Although unlikely, should Citizen Trump find himself behind bars when the polls open this November, that means he would not be permitted to vote for himself.

Honestly, that’s just wrong.

Don’t get it twisted: I’m on board with Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, ratified post-Civil War, that no person should be president who, having promised to defend the Constitution, engaged in, or gave aid and comfort to, an insurrection. Trump instigated a riot at the Capitol to stop electoral certification of an incoming administration and conspired to manufacture a constitutional crisis. That should prohibit him from holding office again in these United States.

But he’s still a citizen with inalienable rights. As of now, Maine and Vermont stand alone in granting all those actively serving prison sentences the right to vote. It’s not an accident they’re among the whitest states in the nation.

Disenfranchisement laws date back to the Jim Crow era and primarily targeted Black people, according to experts. No surprise then that in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, a felony on your record can permanently prohibit you from casting a ballot — even after you’ve done your time.

Indeed, more than 4 million U.S. citizens can’t vote thanks to a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project, a DC-based advocacy group focused on criminal justice reform.

Senate Bill 3423, referred to the Judiciary Committee last December, would fix that. The legislation would extend suffrage to everyone convicted of a felony, whether on probation or parole or in carceral settings.

“In 48 states across our country we have a confusing, inconsistent patchwork of laws that treat different crimes as felonies and set different standards for disenfranchisement,” U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts, who submitted parallel legislation in the House, said at the accompanying press conference. “What this means is that states can arbitrarily make decisions about who to disenfranchise and for how long.”

With voter suppression all the rage in the South, “we are still in the Civil Rights movement,” the congresswoman added.

More than 1 million of the disenfranchised, like Trump, reside in Florida. Consider that Trump won the Sunshine State in 2016 by less than 120,000 votes.

Part of the impetus behind mass incarceration has been Republicans importing constituents who can’t vote, thereby enlarging the clout of those who can. Since the Constitution’s Three-Fifths Compromise we’ve known that, even though Black lives haven’t always mattered, Black bodies sure do.

From “the first US census in 1790, the federal government has included incarcerated people in the population counts of where they’re imprisoned,” National Public Radio reported a few years back. So, “rural, predominantly white towns see their numbers boosted by prisons” disproportionately containing Latino and Black people. We are disenfranchising the very racial minorities who could keep racist demagogues from attaining power.

Would hundreds of prisoners have perished due to extreme heat in Texas prisons if they could help fire the politicians ignoring their plight? Would forced labor in prisons still be a thing if they had a say?

Of the 1.2 million in prison, hundreds have been freed by DNA evidence, which is only available in fewer than 1% of all criminal cases. Meaning we have good reason to suspect that thousands, if not tens of thousands, are innocent as charged. Taking away their voting rights adds tyranny to injury.

Trump sycophants are correct to call the system of justice “two-tiered.” Only, I’m skeptical that if The Donald was Black, he’d have been able to violate a judge’s gag order nearly a dozen times without seeing the inside of a jail cell.

“What I hope people take from this is, the difference in treatment between people with means and people without,” Shira Diner, a lecturer at Boston University’s School of Law, told her campus newspaper. “The best example I can think of: Trump walked out of that courtroom, on his own. Even if a client of mine convicted of a felony weren’t being held on bail, they’re almost always taken into custody and have to surrender their passport.”

Those on the right are more than justified, however, in satirizing liberal hypocrisy. Take the New York Times editorial board.

“Labels Like ‘Felon’ Are an Unfair Life Sentence,” the board opined in 2016. Yet the paper had no qualms with covering Trump with the following headlines:

“Trump Convicted on All Counts to Become America’s First Felon President,”

“A Felon in the Oval Office Would Test the American System” and

“Trump Has Few Ways to Overturn His Conviction as a New York Felon.”

Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert unveiled a “Countdown to Sentencing Advent Calendar” to cheers from his blue state audience. The surest way to garner applause on such shows is to gloat over the lengthy sentences doled out to Jan. 6 rioters. Should caging Homo sapiens of whatever station or character ever engender glee rather than solemnity?

If incarcerated, Trump won’t be the first presidential candidate to run a campaign from prison. That honor belongs to Eugene Debs, five-time Socialist Party nominee for president, who received 900,000 votes while in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1920.

“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth,” he told the court upon his conviction for speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I.

“I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Those moved by Debs’ egalitarian sentiments should extend them to the likes of Orange Man Fascist, lest we replicate his shameless conniving duplicity.

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