In Illinois, 45,545 people won't vote this year. It isn't that they won't have the time. It's not that they lack motivation. It's not that the lines are too long, or they can't get to the polls.
It's where they live - in prison. Although Illinois is one of the few states that allows ex-offenders to vote when they're not locked up. But people currently in prison still can't. A Washington state court case recently challenged that restriction - alleging that because the criminal justice system puts way too many African Americans behind bars that barring them from voting constitutes discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.
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A lower court agreed, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the lower court's decision. Why? Well, they said statistics weren't enough. Lawyers
in the case presented numbers showing black people are "more likely
than whites to be searched, arrested, detained and ultimately
prosecuted," and that those disparities couldn't be explained away
by crime rates. But the higher court said they would actually have to
show intentional discrimination in specific cases - perhaps of the kind
where an officer yells out, "I know you didn't do the crime, but I'm
arresting you anyway because you're black!" on tape - to get a ruling in
In many other states, ex-felons are prevented from ever voting, even after they've served their time. Mississippi recently expanded the list of crimes that makes you ineligible to vote - adding crimes like shoplifting and timber larceny. In Florida, if people with prior felony conviction could have voted in the 2000 election, George Bush might not have become president.
Not being able to vote is just one of the ways someone who's already served their debt to society is unable to rejoin society. They can't apply for food stamps, sit on juries, serve as teachers or firefighters. One little box on every job application - have you been convicted of a crime? - often keeps them from ever holding a real job. Financial aid for college? Forget about it. The message to convicted felons is clear: we may have let you out, but you're not one of us, and you're never going to be.
That message has an impact, says the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit working for a more fair and effective criminal justice system. The group studied felons released from prison from 1997 to 2000 and found that those who could vote were much less likely to end up back in prison.
A common argument for why people in prison shouldn't be allowed to vote is that they would elect an "anti-law enforcement" ticket, one that might play a massive "get out of jail free" card.
But look around, Illinoisans. In the words of Washington Post writer Kevin Krajick, "That 'anti-law enforcement bloc' notwithstanding, we've managed very
nicely to elect plenty of criminals to office without any help from
Two governors, several alderman and perhaps countless other elected officials who see "pay-to-play" as just part of the political landscape, our criminal and corrupt slate of candidates have had no trouble getting into office. Maybe an extra 45,000 votes from people have a bit of experience spotting con artists could help.
Photo credit: Daniel Lobo