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Ventura County Perspective

Make Sure That All the People Have the Right to Vote

November 05, 2000|AARON KIPNIS

Our fierce belief in the inalienable right of American citizens to vote for their leaders is one of the great hallmarks of American democracy. Our nation was founded on a great vision of justice and equality. And, like many inspirations, it has taken a lot of hard work, sacrifice and courage to bring that vision into focus.

Since the American Revolution, our small tent of democracy has steadily grown. Granted at first solely to the white male founders of the United States, the vote has since been extended to former slaves, Native Americans, women, the less literate, those who did not own land, the poor and others initially denied citizen enfranchisement.

Today, many Americans believe that we have achieved the goal of universal suffrage. But have we?

The future promise of the right to vote is an essential tool for teaching civics to youth. We tell our children that, if they do not like the way things are, once they turn 18, they can change their world at the ballot box or even run for political office.

As a child, I was taught that anyone could become president. In my experience as an educator, few youth today believe that to be true, particularly those in minority groups.

Politicians from all parties know that it is still safest to primarily court the white middle and upper classes. They vote in large number. Minorities, by comparison, do not. Voter registration is often lower in economically marginalized or racially diverse communities, particularly among young adults.

Many young citizens are painfully aware that in the coming elections, one in seven African American males (1.4 million) will be denied the right to vote because they have felony convictions on their records. In George W. Bush's Texas, 159,000 black men will not be allowed to voice their choice this week. In many communities today, 25% to 33% of African American men have been disenfranchised by this covert repeal of America's dream of universal suffrage.

Some jury pools now lack any young African American men even though their "peers" flood court dockets due to racially disproportional arrest, conviction and sentencing in many areas. Disenfranchisement practices, like sentencing guidelines in America, vary widely from state to state. Some citizens regain their right to vote in time; many, however, lose that unique herald of democracy for life.

Altogether, about 4 million Americans--one out of 48 eligible and one out of 30 registered voters--have lost their voting rights. A number of elections this week will be lost or won by these 2% to 3% margins. In some minority communities, as many as one in three men are subjected to this invisible gerrymandering, severely undercutting their constituency.

The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall noted that felony disenfranchisement laws originated "in the fogs and fictions of feudal jurisprudence." He was referring to the medieval European tradition of exile and civil death applied to people convicted of crimes. But we like to imagine that our justice system has evolved beyond European norms for the Middle Ages.

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Current Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist acknowledges that the historical evidence reveals that these laws were deliberately "enacted with the intent of disenfranchising blacks. This state-sanctioned racism is not the vision of American democracy I learned in school."

Drug sweeps often target minorities with racial profiling, the result being that young African American males are becoming disenfranchised at five times the rate of their white peers. Hispanic citizens, also targeted by these skews in law enforcement and criminal justice sentencing, are also disproportionately disenfranchised from the vote.

In many states, citizens convicted of felonies are stripped of their civil rights even after they complete their prison sentences, are honorably discharged from parole or receive only probation without going to prison. And yet, as a society, we expect these same young offenders to respect our laws even when they are not allowed to participate in their creation or revision.

We are the only industrial democracy to disenfranchise such massive voting blocs from the electorate. Rather than leading the free world today, we now trail it by a shocking distance on this account. The few nations that do practice voter disenfranchisement do so only toward those few who, through acts of terrorism, treason or other such capital crimes, demonstrate contempt for the democratic process itself.

For example, South Africa, another nation with a troubled history of race relations, does not deny the vote to felons or even to incarcerated prisoners. By contrast, it seems grotesque for us to sentence a college student or a young laborer caught with $10 worth of drugs to lifelong exile from a participatory government.

The practice of disenfranchisement does not encourage those who are marginalized to ever embrace the system or attempt to work within it. If anything, it breeds contempt for the law and cynicism about our capacity for justice and a truly representative democracy.

I hope you will join me in reflection this election day knowing that 4 million Americans did not receive an invitation to the party this year. Let us resolve to do something before the next election to restore our nation to one in which the people, all the people, will decide who will rule and how.

Aaron Kipnis of Santa Barbara is the author of "Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers and Counselors Can Help 'Bad Boys' Become Good Men" and president of the Fatherhood Coalition, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping men to contribute their unique gifts to children, families and the community. Learn more by visiting www.malepsych.com.

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