Inmate Labor Used In Alabama Primary Election
TV images are searing reminder of disenfranchisement of African American felons.
CNN’s Dana Bash stirred Twitter election watchers Tuesday when she tweeted, “something u (sic) don’t see every day. Inmates will help bring ballots here in (Jefferson) county Alabama…”
Early evening video, pouring into the network’s Alabama and Mississippi presidential primary broadcast, showed two local jail inmates, one black and one white, seated on folding chairs and staring miserably into space. The two waited to assist county election officials with carrying bags of paper ballots and electronic memory cards into a vault, a short distance from their seats.
It almost looked like a reverse bank robbery. Both men were dressed in bright, orange-striped prison attire. And both looked less than pleased to have national TV cameras transmitting what some watchers characterized as a humiliating exercise.
CNN’s anchors and field reporters appeared too wrapped up in competing to be the first network to call Alabama for Rick Santorum, to pause and tell viewers that they were looking at a symbol of America’s disenfranchised class.
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Moreover, the images conjure up a stark reality in America’s record of voter disenfranchisement. While Bash confirmed the two inmates weren’t considered dangerous and were likely jailed for misdemeanors, Alabama is one of 11 states where ex-convicts might live the rest of their lives without the right to vote again.
Statistically, African American males know this reality all too well. Add them to the estimated millions of other minorities, senior citizens and young adults who could be turned away from polling places, if a spur in unfair voter ID laws isn’t abated.
The American Civil Liberties Union and The Sentencing Project estimates that more than 5 million felons are prohibited from casting ballots. Black men are disproportionately affected, as 1.4 million of them do not have voting rights, even after their release from federal, state or county lockup.
“The real shame is that over the last decade, at the state level, you had been seeing a trend of easing” disenfranchisement, said Deborah Vagins, senior legislative counsel in the ACLU’s Washington office.
Criminal disenfranchisement measures sprang up during the same era as Jim Crow poll taxes. Today’s voter ID laws were crafted in that same vein, to be suppressive in nature.
“The fact that this has its root in Jim Crow makes it an even more sad and unfair legacy of our past,” Vagins said.
It’s probably hard to imagine how the issue is important outside of the minority community. Look no further than Italian-American law student Jessica Chiappone. Having already served her time for a felony drug conviction, Chiappone’s law career depends on her being admitted to the Florida Bar. She cannot be admitted without first being re-enfranchised, which a recently toughened Florida law currently prohibits.
Vagins, along with Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, is aiding a congressional effort to pass the Democracy Restoration Act, S. 2017 (DRA). The federal measure would simplify re-enfranchisement processes, restoring voting rights to anyone who has satisfactorily completed their felony sentence.
Both a Senate bill and a House bill have been introduced and are likely to be briefed sometime during this congressional session.
Along with Alabama and Florida, convicted felons in Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia and Wyoming are permanently stripped of their voting rights, with some exceptions.
An estimated 4 million ex-convicts, who have long since re-entered their communities, go on without any help in restoring their voting rights, according to the ACLU.
If America is a nation of laws, based on fundamental fairness, the propping up of a permanently disenfranchised class should give everyone pause.
“Our election system should not be continuing to punish people for the rest of their lives,” Vagins said.
“Breaking Barriers to the Ballot Box: Felon Enfranchisement Toolkit” (ACLU, 2007 PDF)
State-by-state “Voting Rights Restoration Process” (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2002)