My work in criminal justice reform and legislative advocacy is so often painstakingly frustrating and discouraging, but his past week I had the gratifying experience of seeing Washington State pass a law that I have been advocating for several years. The new law gives everyone with a felon conviction who is not still incarcerated the right to vote. The law thus frees up some 19,000 people to exercise their democratic voice in the state of Washington. In the grand scheme of things, of course, the vote should never have been taken from them in the first place. Voter suppression has been the mainstay of White political control from the outset of our nation, but particularly as a means of controlling African-Americans during Reconstruction, through Jim Crow, and into the present passage of new voter restriction laws in several states.
Historically the solution to preventing emancipated slaves from asserting political agency was to pass laws that made someone with a felony conviction ineligible for the right to vote. What followed during Reconstruction, and then through Jim Crow, not surprisingly, were a slew of laws aimed primarily at the freed slaves like vagrancy. Later under Jim Crow all sorts of literacy tests and other means of disenfranchisement were also instituted. What was surprising, however, is that the politically convenient means of suppressing the vote of any "criminal underclass” (an “underclass to non-white males particularly) became a common practice to some degree throughout the United States except in Maine and Vermont.
So breaking through this long-established practice of preventing anyone with a felony conviction here in “liberal” Washington should have been a no-brainer. And, in fact, given the tide of anti-racism it would have been even more appropriate if Washington had joined Maine and Vermont and passed a law that also enfranchised those still incarcerated. But even the current law to provide partial suffrage for those with felony convictions took several years. I testified that, in addition to voter suppression being based largely on racist policy, voting was simply the basis of a democracy, and whether or not someone had a felony conviction did not negate his or her citizenship. I also added that some of those impacted were veterans and tax payers, categories that one would assume gave them special consideration. But opposition to increased felony voting rights was surprisingly effective and personal. The unspoken concern, obviously, was the fear that a new wave of eligible voters would support more liberal causes, but the testimony was more about who was or was not worthy of the right to vote.
All this is a preamble to what I really want to share. Through the process of preparing testimony and studying the history of voter suppression, and observing the ongoing national introduction of state-led voter suppression laws, I have come to profoundly appreciate what a sacred right voting really is. It is so easy to take it for granted or dismiss the right to vote as a futile effort to be heard and make any difference in social policy. Yet this past election cycle, particularly in Georgia, was a classic example of how the vote does effect public policy and political control, and confirms the fact that without the right to vote we would quickly devolve into totalitarianism.
It’s a pretty strong statement to say that voting is a sacred act, though. What, then, makes it sacred?
First and perhaps foremost voting in a democracy establishes a baseline of human worth and dignity. When we vote we are asserting we matter, that we have inalienable rights as human beings and assuming agency in our government through the election of public officials and the determination of public policy. If we are disenfranchised and prevented from the right to decide our welfare we go from being subjects to being objects to be controlled and used. From a Quaker point of view, if there is “that of God” in each of us, voting is an assertion of that sacredness and deserves to be honored as such.
I also think that the democratic right to vote is sanctified by making it the basis for defending our democratic nation in war. Soldiers are told that they are risking their lives so that people in the U.S. will be free to vote unlike those who have no public voice under the authoritarian rule of the “enemy.” This assertion, of course, has been challenged by African-Americans and others (veterans with felony convictions!) who, in fact, were denied the right they were told they were defending.
When I think of how African-Americans have historically been specifically disenfranchised, I think of how much of the personhood, their dignity, their freedom and agency has been stolen from them. In terms of reckoning with our nation’s racist past, restoring and honoring the African-American right to vote needs to be a prioritized national anti-racism policy and a central part of any reparations policy. In other words, to continue to subjugate African-American voting rights only prolongs the “original sin” of our racist history.
The law passed this week guaranteeing those with felony convictions the right to vote made the newspaper headlines as it should have. But it is a shame the law was so long in coming, I join the celebration of the voting rights coalition that sponsored and lobbied for the law. Their righteous cause has been affirmed as has my conviction that legislative policy, as difficult as it may be to achieve, also confirms that we as a people can and will do the right thing in respecting the sacredness of the human spirit.