The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

Only weeks remain in the election cycle and Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to win the last remaining undecided voters. Besides who citizens will vote for, one question will leverage a huge impact on the election results: Who won’t be voting?

According to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to criminal justice reform, about 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote due to laws that “prohibit voting by people with felony convictions.”

Felony disenfranchisement reinforces racial disparities within the criminal justice system.

In an essay, civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander highlights the effects of felon disenfranchisement laws. She writes: “As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised … than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified.”

While issues like race and representation are commonly discussed during campaigns, especially in the age of Barack Obama, the reality of felon disenfranchisement is often missing from these conversations. The two must be understood as being interconnected.

Felon disenfranchisement laws vary from state to state but racial inequities are constant. Florida, for example, is one of three states that removes voting rights for life from residents with past felony convictions. This has resulted in nearly one in three African-American men in Florida being unable to vote.

In North Carolina, once residents charged with a felony have completed their sentencing, parole and probation time, their voting rights are fully restored.

Yet according to The Sentencing Project, that still leaves more than 82,000 North Carolinians disenfranchised, and more than half of those are African Americans.

To put these numbers into perspective, Obama won North Carolina in 2008 by just about 14,000 votes.

Felon disenfranchisement laws, along with widespread misinformation about the voting rights of those with criminal records, leave tens of thousands in this state shut out of the electoral process.
With mass incarceration so disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities, consider the dramatic effect voices left out of the electoral process have on political outcomes.
There are alternatives. For example, in Maine and Vermont, residents who commit felonies never lose their right to vote, even during incarceration.

To claim a truly representative democracy, we need to work toward an ideal of equal participation. Our political leaders cannot adequately represent diverse North Carolina communities when tens of thousands are unable to even engage in the electoral process.

To examine the influence of the electorate on the policy agenda, we must also question who is participating in elections, what voices are being heard and what institutionalized obstacles continue to prevent others from casting their ballot in the first place.

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