Right now in New York, more than 122,000 people are prohibited from voting because of felony convictions. The state’s felony disfranchisement policy — which prohibits people who are incarcerated or on parole for a felony offense from voting — hits communities of color particularly hard, barring one out of every 24 black New Yorkers of voting age from the polls.
Felony disfranchisement laws have a disproportionate impact on people and communities of color not only in New York, but also nationwide. Indeed, close to 1.5 million black men are disfranchised due to felony convictions. If incarceration rates hold steady, three in 10 of the next generation of black men will be stripped of their right to vote at some point in their lives.
Across the country, affected individuals have brought constitutional challenges to felony disfranchisement laws alleging racial discrimination. But because many were adopted prior to the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (granting African-American men the right to vote), it has been difficult to show that felony disfranchisement laws were intended to discriminate on the basis of race.
A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, “Jim Crow in New York,” casts new light on the history of New York’s disfranchisement law, and leaves little doubt that lawmakers used felony disfranchisement laws to suppress the African-American vote.
The Brennan Center’s report examines transcripts from New York’s multiple constitutional conventions in which delegates expressed revulsion toward letting black men vote. One delegate noted a “criminal disposition in the race” as evidenced by the disproportionate number of black people in state prison. He argued:
To permit the Ethiopian race to become an important portion of the governing power of the state! To allow that race, the farthest removed from us in sympathy and relationship of all into which the human family is divided, to become a participant in governing, not themselves, but us! Nature revolted at the proposal!
Another plainly stated: “We want . . . no masters, and least of all no negro masters, to reign over us. We contend for self-government . . . we will not meddle with their government in St. Domingo or in Africa, and if we can prevent it, they shall not meddle with ours.”
Against this backdrop, and shortly after the state’s ratification of the 15th Amendment, the New York legislature made a subtle change to state law which mandated felon disfranchisement. As a result, according to the Brennan Center, New York’s “law fell into a national pattern in which criminal disenfranchisement policies provided a useful means of circumventing the Reconstruction Amendments and suppressing black voters.”
The Brennan Center report is a call to action for New York’s legislature to strike this racist vestige of the Reconstruction Era and repeal the felon disfranchisement provisions in New York law. The legislature can do so by passing a package of laws that the New York Civil Liberties Union has placed at the center of its legislative agenda and that would: (1) restore the right to vote to those who have completed their prison sentences but remain on parole; (2) require the state to reach out to the formerly disfranchised and ensure they understand that their voting rights are restored; and (3) pass the Census Adjustment Act, which would count prisoners for legislative redistricting purposes in the counties they come from instead of the counties where they are imprisoned and cannot vote.
Want to learn more and help send Jim Crow into retirement once and for all? Join the Brennan Center and the Fortune Society tomorrow, March 2, for a public conversation at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.