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 J. Whyatt Mondesire

Excerpted from: J. Whyatt Mondesire, Felon Disenfranchisement: the Modern Day Poll Tax, 10 Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review 435-441 (Spring 2001)(32 Footnotes)


The generally accepted proposition that vote populi symbolizes democratic governments is more myth than reality. Historically speaking, democracies actually are quite stingy with whom they share the right to vote. Beginning with the ancient plutocratic Athenian democracy more than 5,000 years ago, citizens were paid to attend assembly meetings and vote. To be sure, knowing the paymaster (or his cousin) obviously was a plus.

Qualifications to vote in the period between the French Revolution and Napoleon often were so quixotic; most French citizens stayed off the streets either out for fear of the guillotine or of what the Emperor held in his famous blue waistcoat. Even the Vatican for a period placed itself in the midst of a crusade against universal suffrage when in pre-Facist Italy in the 1920s it banned all political activity by Catholics, a fact which has been seen by several historians as a contributing factor in the rise of Mussolini.

In this country, the history of the gradually widening of the franchise coincides directly with our internal (and sometimes violent) discourse on race. Loyal to their slave holding legacies, the Founding Fathers limited the franchise to property-owning white men when they met in Philadelphia to draft the original Constitution in 1787. And it would take almost two centuries, a civil war, a protracted women's Suffrage movement and several constitutional amendments to slowly extend the franchise to something approximating the universality that most of us have come to accept as today's embodiment of "We The People."

The evolution of the American democracy, though unlike Darwinian theory, has no natural protections against reversion, i.e., a constriction in the steady march toward true universal suffrage. Most emphatically, in the past dozen years just such a reversal has occurred with the rapid erosion of the franchise among the nearly four million Americans--more than all of our armed forces combined--who have been released recently from either state or federal prisons. Four million ex-offenders, many of whom work and pay taxes, have lost the right to vote, constituting for the first time since slavery, a voteless caste.

One California ex-inmate recently told a congressional hearing just how it felt to be forced to live under this 21st century version of the poll tax: "Without a vote, a voice, I am a ghost inhabiting a citizen's space." Continuing his testimony, Joe Loya, added, "I want to walk calmly into a polling place with other citizens to carry my placid ballot into the booth, check off my choices, then drop my conscience in the common box."

I. A Life Long Poll Tax

According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C. based organization that studies criminal justice policies, an estimated 3.9 million Americans, or one in fifty adults, have lost the right to vote as a result of a felony conviction. Thirty-two states ban parolees from voting. Two states ban former inmates from voting after the second felony. And fourteen states effectively strip ex-offenders of their franchise for life, unless reversed by a gubernatorial pardon.

Restoration of the franchise is so onerous in one state--Alabama--that applicants must submit to a DNA test at a state approved facility. Extra hardships are routinely encountered since there are only four approved testing labs in the whole state.

It cannot be over-emphasized that these figures do not reflect the disenfranchisement of men and women who are currently behind bars, these figures reflect the number of voteless people who cannot exercise their basic democratic rights after they've been released. A host of civil rights groups estimate that almost half of the voteless caste--about 1.4 million--are African American men. The impact Alabama's felon disenfranchisement laws had reached such massive proportions that legislators last year considered repealing their statutes when published reports showed that nearly one-third of that state's black male population was barred from voting essentially forever. Felon disenfranchisement is significant not only because of the number of citizens it affects, but also because of its disproportionate impact on the voting power of racial minorities. Nationwide, thirteen percent of black men suffer felon disenfranchisement.

Such egregious consequences of this "modern day poll tax" have persuaded the national NAACP office to support H.R. 906, introduced by Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, to restore the voting rights of ex-offenders in federal elections. In his congressional testimony supporting H.R. 906, NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton pointed out that "African Americans and other Americans of color are being kept out of the electoral process at an unequal rate, even after they have paid their debt to society." Added Mr. Shelton:

America expects felons to come out of our penal system prepared to act as productive members of society. We believe ex-felons should support their families and their communities. This is not an unreasonable expectation, but we need in turn to support them in their efforts. Because voting is such an integral part of being a productive member of American society, we should be encouraging ex-felons to vote, not prohibiting them . . . . Felony restrictions are the last vestige of voting prohibitions in the United States.

II. Skyrocketing Imprisonment of Black Males

The rate of black imprisonment rose forty percent between 1980 and 1985. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, on a typical day in 1985, 310,000 (about three and a half percent) were in prison or jail. The figure out for incarcerated black men more than doubled by 1996 to 714,000, fully 6.6% of all black men.

The parallel figure that year--1996--for white men was 760,000 (0.9%) of all white men. Thus, even though black men are only about twelve percent of the male population, they accounted for roughly half of all incarcerated men. The proportion of black men incarcerated is about eight times greater than the proportion of white males incarcerated. For Hispanic males, the proportion incarcerated is about three and a half times the white male proportion.

The concurrent increase in the rate of imprisonment of black females-- currently growing faster than that of white men--means we face a national catastrophe whose negative impact will be felt for several generations. According to a Justice Department study released in late August, nearly one and a half million of our nation's children have a mother or father in federal or state prison. This is a sixty percent increase since 1991 of children under the age of eighteen who face these circumstances.

And if it is generally accepted that voting is a learned behavior most often taught by parents who either take their children into the voting booth or who talk to their offspring about why they are voting, thus it is not hard to foresee several generations of black and brown children growing up without ever seeing their parent(s) pull a lever in a voting machine. A majority of the children with imprisoned parents--fifty-eight percent--were under the age of ten, and the average age was eight years old. As of December 31, 1999, they represented 2.1 % of the nation's seventy-two million minor children.

III. Poll Tax--Then and Now

The 1965 Voting Rights Act is generally regarded by most analysts and historians as one of the most seminal accomplishments of the modern Civil Rights Movement, not only because it finally employed the full weight and power of the federal government to extend the franchise to a whole class of previously disenfranchised citizens of the South, but also because it became the springboard for the final legal assault on the Jim Crow laws which had deprived African Americans the vote since Reconstruction, a pivotal part of the foundation of their economic exploitation for more than a century.

To comprehend just how effectively 19th century poll taxes excluded Southern blacks from the franchise, consider the evidence of black voter registration rates in the states of the Old Confederacy at the beginning of the last century. In 1927, only 847 blacks were registered to vote in Mississippi out of a total population of 188,000. By 1940, registrations had inched up to five percent while in Alabama less than fifteen percent were listed on the rolls.

Meeting in a special convention in 1890, called specifically to address the "problem" of the "Negro vote" in Mississippi (where blacks made up the majority of the population), white delegates passed a suffrage resolution imposing a poll tax of two dollars, excluding voters convicted of bribery, burglary, theft, arson, perjury, murder and bigamy, while also barring those who could not read any section of the state constitution, or understand it when read, or give a reasonable interpretation.

South Carolina followed in 1895 with a bill calling for a two-year residency requirement, a poll tax of one dollar, the ability to read and write the Constitution or to own property worth three hundred dollars and the disqualification of convicts. Florida had succumbed in 1889, setting up a device that required the voter to deposit separate ballots in each of the different boxes marked for different candidates, making it virtually impossible for the illiterate to navigate the balloting process.

This problem improved little for the first half of the next century. At the time of the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, fewer than three out of ten Southern blacks--1.4 million--were eligible to vote. The 24th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing poll taxes in national elections, was ratified in 1964. By the mid-term elections two years later, an additional 750,000 blacks were registered. Black registration soared even higher a year later when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case brought by Lyndon Johnson's White House, voided the poll tax in all elections.

IV. Economic Dimension

Lurking behind all of this chicanery with ballot boxes and trumped up taxes was the not to subtle intent by southern whites to utilize disenfranchisement to create a class of peons who would supply the economic muscle for the region's agricultural infrastructure, but which would be unable to mount any serious challenge over the distribution of resources and wealth, even when these tenant farmers and sharecroppers were in the majority. "Disenfranchisement was part of the broader effort by the southern planter class to erect a system of political, economic and social coercion over blacks that would permit the re-establishment of a quasi-feudal labor system. Experience (during Reconstruction) showed that black suffrage interfered with this objective."

Today's modern multi-billion-dollar prison-industrial complex, which has inmates manufacturing every conceivable kind of product as well as doing business on the worldwide web, thus, must be examined in this broader context. By even the most basic standard it is obvious to predict that the long term effects of felon disenfranchisement will mean that this burgeoning voteless caste will continue to be at the mercy of exploitative economic interests for many generations yet unborn.

V. The Legal Counterattack

Igniting an effective counter strategy clearly is in the interest of the modern NAACP, the very same organization that was in the vanguard of the anti-poll tax movement in the early years of the last century. The first volley in the modern strategy was begun last December in Pennsylvania, which bans ex-felons from registering to vote for five years after release, when the Philadelphia NAACP Branch filed suit in state court to overturn that state's disenfranchisement statute, approved hastily in 1995.

Pennsylvania's notoriously corrupt and backward courts are even more glacial in their pace than are many other large states, a fact which prompted the Philadelphia Branch of the NAACP to bring a separate action in the spring of this year in federal court. Both actions attack the Pennsylvania disenfranchisement law as a clear violation of both the state and federal constitutions guarantees of one man, one vote. "Undeniably felon disenfranchisement in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is racially discriminatory," the Philadelphia Branch declared at a news conference announcing its two-pronged legal counter-strategy.

What's more, felon disenfranchisement is cruel and mean spirited, clearly designed to be hurtful even as these men and women are trying to work their way back into society's all too often less than welcoming arms . . . . Its long term effects are so overwhelming as to be beyond simple quantification. At a time when the fastest growing prison population are African American Women, most of whom have families, how is it possible that their offspring will ever vote since they probably will never see their mothers or fathers walk into a polling booth? By denying these ex-inmates the right to register to vote for five years after release, the state really is stealing rights from their offspring as well; stealing, most probably for a lifetime, one of our nation's most fundamental rights--the right of the governed to choose their leaders, even as it taxes them and continues to be able to call upon them to lay down their lives in a time of a national emergency or conflict.

VI. A History of Valor

Having watched his fellow Mississippians march off to join the "war to protect democracy," most probably was one of the issues which persuaded Harrisburg NAACP President Vernon Dahmer that something had to be done to address the poll tax that deprived so many of the returning black vets of their right to vote. The owner of a successful grocery store in his hometown, Dahmer decided in the 1950s to begin to pay the poll taxes of any black state resident with the courage to show up at the county registrar's office. Back then, taking up Vernon Dahmer's offer was no spur of the moment decision.

In 1966 the Klan ruled Mississippi. The federal government rarely challenged their autonomy. And local governments never did, since more often than not their membership lists were practically synonymous. One chilly January night thirty-four years ago, Vernon Dahmer's wife, Ellie and the family awoke to the sounds of motor engines and honking horns. Two carloads of Klansmen, some armed with shotguns, others carrying cans of gasoline, burst from their vehicles outside the Dahmer home at two o'clock in the morning. They dumped their gasoline on the wooden farmhouse, setting it ablaze in just a few moments. Vernon aided his family's escape from the smoke and flames by holding the Klansmen at bay with his own repeated shotgun blasts. His two young children and wife would testify decades later that they could smell their father's burning flesh as they ran to safety beneath his outstretched arms holding the burning door ajar. Twelve hours later Vernon died from the injuries to his seared lungs.

It would not be until August 1998 that the man who ordered Vernon Dahmer's murder--Sam Bowers--was finally convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Bowers, who at the time was the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan was also at the center of the conspiracy of the infamous Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama three years earlier which killed four pre-teen black girls as they attended Sunday school.

Today's struggle against felon disenfranchisement is born of the valiant and sometimes very costly struggle Vernon Dahmer and other NAACP members waged against the poll tax of an earlier generation. Like Vernon Dahmer, today's NAACP knows that voteless people not only lose political freedom, but are certain to be sentenced to a life of servitude as well.

[a1]. J. Whyatt Mondesire is President of the Philadelphia Branch of the NAACP, as well as editor and publisher of The Philadelphia Sunday Sun newspaper.

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