Scott is a staff attorney at the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization .
Researchers heralded the 2020 presidential election as having record turnout, with two-thirds of eligible voters casting a ballot. Yet, people overlook how this calculation excluded 5.1 million potential voters.
Currently, 48 states deem some residents ineligible to vote if they have a felony conviction. No matter how long ago that conviction occurred, or how the person's life may have changed since, states restrict their right to participate in elections.
While there is a growing trend towards modifying state laws to make voting easier for those with felony convictions, other states remain committed to suppressing votes. Even where advocates and policymakers have tried to change antiquated laws and improve systems, the most egregious states refuse to improve. They continue to treat voting as a privilege instead of the right it actually is.
Where these states insist on acting against full democracy for their residents, Congress is in a unique position to assure the basic right for all to have a voice in our political process. By passing the For the People Act — which the House passed in March as HR 1 and is now awaiting debate in the Senate as S 1 — we can make history in expanding the franchise to millions.
Felony disenfranchisement has existed for centuries. But beginning in the 1890s it was strategically used in the United States to minimize the Black electorate, especially in Southern states. Legislatures created laws to permanently remove a person's right to vote — or to only restore that right if certain requirements were satisfied, many of which were unfair, confusing and burdensome to navigate. Today, these laws continue to lock millions out the electoral process, disproportionately affecting voters of color.
Advocates have worked to reform these laws, crafting bills to simplify criteria and pushing state constitutional amendments to expand access. In spite of several significant wins in the last decade, states including Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida and Wisconsin adamantly persist in denying millions a full place in society.
According to a new report from my organization, Mississippi is one of the worst violators. The state's highly punitive law disenfranchises 235,150 Mississippians — one out of every 10 people in the state's voting-age population. For Black Mississippians the number is even higher: one in seven. Residents can only restore their rights by obtaining an individual order from the governor or winning passage of an individual bill by the Legislature. That process in particular is inaccessible and arbitrary, with legislators passing a very small percentage of such proposed bills. In the decade ending in 2017, for example only 45 people had their voting rights restored through legislation. Every year, legislators deny thousands of tax-paying citizens the right to choose their representatives and support measures that impact their communities. Mississippi lawmakers send their residents a clear message: We refuse to give up our oppressive and discriminatory system.
Florida is another place where the Legislature is failing to act in the interest of its residents. In November 2018, more than 64 percent of Floridians voted to restore voting rights to more than 1.4 million people. The following spring, though, legislators reversed one of the largest expansions of voting rights in decades. It passed a bill requiring payment of legal fines and fees before a person could vote. These additional barriers drastically shrank the number of newly eligible voters and made a person's right to vote dependent on wealth. Florida lawmakers clearly chose suppression over the will of the people.
Congress has an opportunity to remedy state inaction and voter suppression by passing the For the People Act, which President Biden says he's eager to sign. The comprehensive legislation includes a provision that ensures everyone with a felony conviction may vote in federal elections if they are not currently incarcerated. The provision would supersede state felony disenfranchisement laws and expand the number of eligible voters for federal elections to millions across the country. Voting rights would no longer depend on geography or the whims of elected officials. All voters would be on equal footing.
The only way our democracy can thrive and truly represent the will of the people is if everyone has a voice in the trajectory of our country. People who live, work in and contribute to our communities deserve to have a voice in what happens to them and their families. Congress has the power and opportunity to give them this assurance by passing the For the People Act.
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