Today is the 45th anniversary of the passage of the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. Until the height of the civil rights movement, state voting laws allowed discriminatory practices like poll taxes, “literacy” tests and grandfather clauses. Additionally Jim Crow segregation and even intimidation and violence led to the systemic disenfranchisement of African American voters.
The National Voting Rights Act helped to return voting rights to how the 15th Amendment of the Constitution read: “the right of U.S. citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged … on account of race or color.” By trumping the state laws that had a grossly discriminatory effect of African American voter disfranchisement, the Voting Rights Act was a major step forward for the civil rights movement and taught our country that barriers to voting are unconstitutional.
But as we look back at the history of this landmark legislation, we must remember that there is unfinished business in the area of voting rights. One holdover from the days of Jim Crow laws is the idea that citizens who commit felonies should be denied their right to vote. The American public is still split on this issue and some still support the idea of taking away voting rights as a form of "civil death" as a fair part of punishment.
However it must be said that America is doing an excellent job of putting people behind bars since we have the highest incarceration rates in the world. And Wisconsin is among our country’s leaders for disproportionate imprisonment of people of color. Punitive trends started with Reagan’s War on Drugs, led to “truth in sentencing” and today politicians emphasize incarceration and harsh sentences for even non-violent drug offenses. Add in racial profiling and a systemic imbalance on how sentences are meted out in court rooms across the country and the truth is simple: we are locking up more people of color than ever before.
In Wisconsin, our state law says that people with felony convictions cannot vote until they have served time behind bars as well as completed probation and parole. Our state’s disproportionate minority incarceration means that minority voters on probation and parole in our communities are working and paying taxes but remain locked out of the voting booth.
The ACLU of Wisconsin and the Restore the Vote coalition worked hard this year to convince our state legislators that the time is now to change our state law to allow voting access for every citizen who is not incarcerated. Meanwhile state laws and court decisions across the country are moving toward making ex-felon disfranchisement a thing of the past. Wisconsin shouldn’t wait for the courts or Congress to restore the vote to those who are no longer incarcerated.
For more on this topic, check out Linda Greenhouse’s opinion piece in the New York Times from last week where she describes who goes to prison, why the racial imbalance of those who are incarcerated combined with felon disfranchisement has a discriminatory result, and how this issue has the attention of the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration. Greenhouse is a Yale Law professor, an expert on SCOTUS and a Pulitzer Prize winning writer.
For news from around the country on the work of the ACLU to secure voting rights for those who are no longer incarcerated, visit our national website.