Securing Everyone's Right to Vote

By Shaka At-Thinnin
Published March 9th 2005 in San Francisco Bay View

Voting rights for all seems so right it shouldn’t need discussing. Voting rights for all, as natural as breathing. Voting rights for all, only a dream.

In this time of so-called freedom and the excruciating awareness that civil rights are fundamental to our existence, a major roadblock must still be overcome. The right to vote does not in fact include all of America’s citizens.

Civil death is a practice Europe inherited from Greek and Roman traditions that meant being stripped of all rights and property and the right of defense against abuse and even death at the hands of others. In modern day America, this practice of civil death permeates society and insidiously causes harm, both in free society and in prison.

Once someone is convicted of a crime and locked away in the nation’s prison industrial complex, they are considered to no longer be a member of not only the community from which they came, but of humanity in general. In many cases one must only be convicted of a crime to receive this blanket characterization.

In prison their suffering is expected and encouraged. Pleas for sympathy, forgiveness, intervention or human kindness are ignored. Even in cases where issues are brought before outside courts and won, those cases don’t change the condition of prisoners unless expedient for the prison administration. Civil death still holds sway.

The official label for all matters concerning prisoners, in incidents ranging from illness to violent death, is N.H.I. or no humans involved. Millions of dollars are spent each year reinforcing the notion in the general public that convicted felons are now and forever more unworthy of even the slightest consideration.

It is no wonder that when one is set free of the confinement of prison, the stigma moves with them like a cloak of darkness. The chains have not been loosed; they have merely been painted a new color.

Once back in society, civil death is still in full effect – officially for life in some states and unofficially for life in others. The debt you paid to society only covers the theoretical notion that you now have a clean slate to turn your life around.

Of the liberties taken with incarceration, the right to be a part of the decision making process of your community ranks right next to your freedom in the new life you are trying to start. Only those with money or the markings of being from the ruling class can ignore the dictates of civil death.

Disenfranchisement removes from you the right to vote in many states forever. In some states, the right is regained through petition once the conditions of parole or probation have been served.

In others, like California, you may vote once you have completed parole unless otherwise specified. The problem in California and other states with similar laws is that no one tells the ex-felon anything. It’s quite easy to go on believing you can never vote again if society does nothing to encourage your community and civic involvement.

In fact, society continues to treat you as if you were still regularly committing crimes. As federal Judge Henry Wingate put it: “The disenfranchised is severed from the body politic and condemned to the lowest form of citizenship, where, voiceless at the ballot box, the disinherited must sit idly by while others elect his civil leaders and while others choose the fiscal and governmental policies which will govern him and his family.”

It seems we have come a long way since the Civil War and the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. That is at least the perception put forth by optimists wishing to focus on those gains truly significant but only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what must be for true equality.

People of color in general are hampered in every way possible from being critical to the makeup of the rules of law and procedure that govern those things most important in life: food, clothing, shelter, health, justice and dignity.

African descendants of this country’s slave industry are most particularly in jeopardy of being effectively and completely shut out of civil existence except in the guise of a criminal, laborer or token follower of the mandates of their so-called betters. For the African of North America, the right to vote is questionable at best and an outright illusion when it comes to having an effect on the things that govern this country.

Since 1965, the drive to do anything other than direct the African vote towards particularly white endeavors has been very low key. It is past time when the voting rights of all were guaranteed and encouraged for the betterment of all. To look at some statistics from the sentencing project, the picture is bleak from their standards and quite conservative in many respects in the opinion of others.

According to the Sentencing Project :

l An estimated 3.9 million Americans, or one in 50 adults, have currently or permanently lost the ability to vote because of a felony conviction.

l 1.4 million persons disenfranchised for a felony conviction are ex-offenders who have completed their criminal sentence. Another 1.4 million of the disenfranchised are on probation or parole.

l 1.4 million African American men, or 13 percent of the Black adult male population, are disenfranchised, reflecting a rate of disenfranchisement that is seven times the national average. More than one third (36 percent) of the total disenfranchised population is Black men.

l Ten states disenfranchise more than one in five adult Black men; in seven of these states, one in four Black men is permanently disenfranchised.

l Given current rates of incarceration, three in 10 of the next generation of Black men will be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. In states with the most restrictive voting laws, 40 percent of the African American men are likely to be permanently disenfranchised.

There are efforts being mobilized across the country to make sure that voting rights for all is no longer an illusion. People in federal, state and city government are joining the fight to guarantee the right to vote.

In Northern California, a group of folks have come together and formed Voting Rights For All to work to make sure everyone has the information about voting available to them when they are released from prison or any other situation that might have them confused about whether or not they can vote. Any and all help in this effort is welcome and needed.

If you are in Northern California and interested in helping to ensure access to the vote for people with felony convictions, or if you have been denied access to the vote based on a prior conviction (and you are not in prison or on parole), contact Judy Grether, (510) 684-4321, [email protected]; David Hilliard, (510) 986-0768, [email protected]; or Maya Harris, (415) 621-2493, ext. 309, [email protected]

For more information, visit the Sentencing Project website at or the Right to Vote campaign at