At the Polls: Why do we take voting rights away in America? (ep. 7)

October 27, 2020
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Over 5 million Americans are kept from the polls by laws that prohibit people with felony convictions from voting. While the intricacies of these laws vary from state to state, people who have been convicted of a felony are blocked from voting in one way or another in 48 states. But why do felony disenfranchisement laws exist in the first place and where do they come from? On this episode, we spoke with Jennifer Taylor from the Equal Justice Initiative, an organizer with Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Demetrius Jifunza, and the ACLU's National Campaign Strategist for criminal justice reform, Lewis Conway, to find out. 

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“The White House, the Congress, the prospect of change.”
“The importance of each and every vote.”
“Protect and to preserve our voter system.”

[00:00:07] From the ACLU, this is At the Polls. A special miniseries on… you guessed it: voting. I’m Molly McGrath, a voting rights lawyer and organizer and your host for this series.

“The right to vote of all of our young people...”
“Belongs to you.”
“The machinery of democracy should work for everyone, everywhere.”

[00:00:29] This week we’re answering the question: Why are we stopping people who’ve been convicted of a felony from voting?

And stay tuned, at the end of the episode we’ll answer listener questions.

Earlier this year, Demetrius Jifunza voted for the first time in his life. He’s 43 years old and for the last 24 years he’s been blocked at the ballot box by his criminal record in his home state of Florida. Voting in his local election, well it was a big day for him.

[00:01:00] It was great. I always tell people that voting rights is like the front door to so many future possibilities. You know, you think that just because you landed a career, you got a job, you go back to school, you get your degrees, you have your family, you're paying your taxes, you're doing all that right there, that that's normal stuff. But to someone who made a regrettable decision and cannot really exercise the voting rights, the normal stuff is like a big thing to someone in my shoes, because it's like you're working, but you don't have a voice. You're doing everything you're supposed to do and people cheering you on, they're saying, hey, you’re doing great, I like what you're doing. But if you really can't exercise your voting rights, I'm not saying that it means nothing is just that it's hurtful because you cannot voice your opinion in something so simple just by going and casting a vote.

[00:01:51] Over 5 million Americans are like Demetrius, kept from the polls by laws that prohibit people with felony convictions from voting.

ANTI-FELON VOTING ACTIVIST RICHARD HARRISON: “Repeat offenders, violent criminals, I think they should have a much harder path and maybe never get there at all.”

[00:02:06] While the intricacies of these laws vary from state to state, people who have been convicted of a felony are blocked from voting in one way or another in 48 states.

FORMERLY INCARCERATED PERSON: “It made me feel worthless, like I wasn’t even a citizen because I couldn’t vote. My voice couldn’t be heard.”

FORMERLY INCARCERATED PERSON 2: “We got released, but we’re still not free.”

[00:02:27] But these policies don’t weigh on us all equally. More than one in five Black Americans of voting age are impacted by felony disenfranchisement laws, making them four times more likely to be barred from voting than their counterparts.

If you’re surprised, don’t be. According to Jennifer Taylor, Senior Attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, the system was designed this way.

[00:02:51] In terms of the application of those policies here in the United States, they really became widespread after emancipation as an effort to figure out how to limit the rights of African-American people and how to limit the impact of the fact that they had been emancipated by the 13th Amendment and then had been made Americans by the 14th Amendment. And then there was the passage of the 15th Amendment, which explicitly said a state isn't able to stop a person from being able to participate in the political process because of their race. And so that put the former Confederate states in a position where they had to figure out how are we going to maintain white ownership of our political process but still comply with these amendments. And they took a number of approaches in response to that. A lot of the policies that a lot of us are aware of in terms of creating a poll tax and literacy test and all kinds of things were all aimed at accomplishing that. But felony disenfranchisement policies were also aimed at that.

[00:04:07] You know, we see these current restrictions on the right to vote like photo I.D. laws and cut to early vote and, you know, restrictions on registration. But what you pointed out with the history of felony disenfranchisement laws, that this goes back to the, you know, reconstruction era. This is a relic of Jim Crow and a reaction to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment.

[00:04:27] Exactly.

[00:04:29] While the authors of the 14th Amendment granted citizenship, and therefore equal rights to enslaved people, they inserted a poison pill that’s been exploited ever since. The amendment lets states deny the vote for and I quote, “participation in rebellion or other crime.” Thus, felony disenfranchisement laws continue to be a valuable tool for voter suppression and an easy way to continue the legacy of oppression over Black Americans.

[00:04:59] They understood the power of the Black vote. And when Fannie Lou Hamer, when she began to organize -- and I think that that's when I began to appreciate not only the effort that went into getting us to vote, but just how much of a threat that the Black vote was. They jailed her in prison for registering people to vote. Not for regular, for registering people to vote.

[00:05:25] That is Lewis Conway, ACLU’s National Campaign Strategist who works on criminal justice reform.

[00:5:30] I began to appreciate voting in a different way, so, you know when we think about felony disenfranchisement laws, it's not just for voter suppression, it's the complete eradication of the rights that make us human, right? Is the thing that makes us not just American, but they strip away the things that make you human. I've been released from prison for almost 30 years now, well 20 years, and every time I move, my background comes up regardless of my income, regardless of my rental history. That thing that happened in 1992 still comes up, no matter how much space has happened, how much reformation has happened. And that's someone like me that kind of has the agency to navigate that. What about the folks that don't? What about the folks that don't have that family, that don't have that verbal agility to talk and explain and advocate for themselves?

Felony disenfranchisement is literally keeping folks from having access to health care, from having access to education, from having access to employment, housing, and in many cases those things can coalesce in a way that deny you access to your children because you can't pay your child support. It will send you back to jail or prison based upon a parole or probation violation. So when we talk about felony disenfranchisement, it's a layered onion of restrictions and denials that keep people further and further from being able to be productive citizens.

[00:07:19] Lewis, I’m wondering if you could share a little bit about your own story.

[00:07:23] Absolutely. You know I was 21 when I was convicted and ended up doing eight years in prison and then I did twelve years on parole. And the one thing that stands out to me is that exiting prison, the one conversation that we did not have was about voting. I was off parole three years before I knew I was even eligible to vote. And so the last time I voted, I think it was for Clinton before I went to prison.

[00:07:52] I'm trying to think, if you can remember back to that day or that moment when you realized you did have the right to vote again, and how did you come to learn that and what did it feel like? Especially knowing that you had had it for three years, you know?

[00:08:05] Right, So in 2013 when my parole ended, I was working for an organization and I got a call from a student that wanted to interview me about felony disenfranchisement. And during that interview, you know, she made the statement that, you know, once people in Texas are off parole, they can go vote. So that was in 2016. So it was during an interview is when I found out from a line of questioning that I was able to vote.

[00:08:38] How did you feel once you learned that you could?

[00:08:41] It was disconcerting, to say the least. And I think in the same moment, I realized why that information isn’t widely disseminated. If you really think about formerly incarcerated people and incarcerated people as a voting bloc, if you realize all of those folks have family, friends, children. That becomes a significant voting bloc that is, that hasn't been courted. It’s a voting bloc that doesn’t know that they exist. There is a patchwork of disenfranchisement scenarios across the country where folks, you know, who are off parole can vote in some places. Folks in some places can’t ever vote. And then in the interim where voting has been given back, the rights of voting has been returned to people, they don't know it. Again, I was involved in advocacy and I didn't know I could vote. I was involved in policy work, in passing laws at the state capital and didn't know I could vote. So can you imagine a person that is four or five times removed from advocacy? They have no clue. And then if they're watching the Internet, if they're watching the TV, they're being told over and over that they're going to have to wait hours in line, that even if they try to mail in their vote, it might not be counted. That's when all of those variables come into play in a very destructive way, because as long as Black folks are caught up in this gristmill of a criminal legal system, it is not only the incarceration that continues to harm folks, it is the collateral consequences of that carceration that that harms communities, that harms neighborhoods and ultimately harms our country.

[00:10:31] The good news is that more and more people are coming to understand that these laws are harmful to democracy. It’s a slow fight, but there has been progress. Since 2016, states including Wyoming, Virginia, New York, Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, Iowa and Florida have all taken steps toward allowing more people with felony convictions to vote.

NEWS ANCHOR 1: “Felons in Iowa who served their time will automatically have their voting rights restored.”

NEWS ANCHOR 2: “… More than 100,000 convicted felons in Kentucky the right to vote, Governor Andy Beshear signed an executive order making that a reality.”

NEWS ANCHOR 3: “Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe invoked his state’s racist past when he restored the right to vote to convicted felons who served their sentences.”

NEWS ANCHOR 4 : “In Florida, looks like Amendment 4 will pass.”

NEWS ANCHOR 5: “Here tonight in Florida, Amendment 4, the amendment that will restore voting rights to 1.5 million people who already paid their debt to society and had felony records, that passed.”

[00:11:29] Demetrius was one of the Floridians who fought to have his voting rights restored.

[00:11:33] So what Amendment Four did is that as long as you wasn't charged with felony murder or felony sex crimes or anything, anything of that nature there, you were eligible to receive your voting rights back. It took a lot because we first had to educate ourselves as to the dos and don'ts of what we can do and what amendments were actually meant. And then when we went and knocked on the doors of registered voters and asked them to sign a petition, we had to educate them as well as to what we were doing. So, what it actually did is that it allowed so many people, many such as myself who never voted in their life until this amendment has passed, it allowed them to exercise their voting rights.

[00:12:15] But the work is far from over. While some returning citizens in Florida are now allowed to vote, Governor DeSantis signed a bill requiring returning citizens to pay fines, fees, and restitution before voting -- basically reestablishing a poll tax.

NEWS ANCHOR: “Governor Ron DeSantis just won a court victory requiring people to pay off fines, restitution and court fees before voting if they’ve been convicted of a felony.”

NEWS ANCHOR 2: “… Supporters equating to having to pay before you can vote to a poll tax.”

[00:12:48] Demetrius and his fellow organizers were blindsided by the state legislature. And while they are disappointed, Demetrius still feels hopeful.

What advice would you give to other formerly incarcerated people who are still blocked from voting in their state?

[00:13:05] Don't give up. Laws change because people don't give up. We've come this far. I mean, Florida is a state that for some reason, we're so behind on so much. But we are catching up because now people are really starting to force their opinion. They're really started to fight. I would encourage anyone don't give up. I'm still in the fight because I feel that until all of us can vote, then everyone that can vote need to fight for everyone else. I mean it’s so funny, when Amendment 4 passed, we celebrated, we had a great time. I mean, you see the pictures everybody's in awe and some people in tears. And then a little while later, boom, we got hit with a stumbling block. Well okay, fine. There's going to be stumbling blocks that don't mean that we stop. We stumble, we keep moving. And that's what I want to tell those individuals. You stumble, but you keep moving and then you allow someone that's willing to fight for you to fight for you so we can actually get to the finish line together.

[00:14:02] And I'm wondering too what you think, you know, whether it's the passage of Amendment 4 and then the reaction of the Florida legislature to require fines and fees or whether it's other states that still have these laws on the books or require, you know, probation, parole. Any of these laws that restrict the right to vote for, for people who have been convicted of a felony. Why, why do you think that lawmakers, some people support these laws?

[00:14:34] Oh, yeah because it would change the trajectory of Florida. I mean, I remember at one time a question was asked, what would happen to the state of Florida if all these people finally exercised their right to vote. State of Florida would change. And that's one thing that a lot, a lot of lawmakers fear, change in the state. That's the short answer. This is the first time that former incarcerated felons are important.

[00:15:00] At the ACLU, we believe in protecting and defending the right to vote for all people, regardless of whom or what you vote for. Our right to vote should never be taken away.

Now it’s time for a couple listener questions. The first one comes from Camille K. Camille writes:

“How are those who have recently been evacuated (or hospitalized) due to climate emergency-driven natural disasters given safe access to their absentee ballots or polling places?”

Thanks for this, Camille. If you're a voter who's needed to temporarily relocate because of climate emergencies, know that you can get your mail ballot mailed to your temporary address where you're taking refuge. For voters who are in areas impacted by climate disasters please also double check your early voting locations and polling locations that may be impacted. And actually, all voters should double-check their polling location this year since COVID has affected whether a lot of locations can be used or not, and you can do this by going to your state or local election officials website, you can go to or you can call 866-OUR-VOTE for additional help and questions.

[00:16:19] The next question is from Chris in Louisville, Kentucky. Chris asks:

“I recently had to change my address and I noticed a lot of complicated and unclear steps in order to update my driver’s license. ... My worry is that, if your ID doesn’t match the address on your voter registration, are they going to purge your registration or void your ballot? What about the looming eviction crisis?”

Thanks Chris, and you're right, photo ID laws erect unnecessary hurdles to the ballot box that can be a time-consuming maze, including this new ID law in Kentucky. Now as we continue to fight against these laws, please remember that not every state has an ID law and, like all voting laws, these laws are also different from state to state if your state does have an ID law. So right now make sure that you have what you need for this election in your state. You can do that by going to

Thanks so much to Demetrius Jifunza, Jennifer Taylor and Lewis Conway for joining us and thank you so much for listening. The election is now a week away. So until next time, go vote!

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