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Republicans Having a Selma Moment

by Brian Lynch, MSW

It’s been fifty years since marchers seeking voting rights were beaten on the Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama, yet Republican leaders still can’t join hands with African Americans on that bridge without offending bigots in their base. Fifty year later and a show of unity on that bridge is still the wrong message coming from the Republican Party? Really?

Edmund Pettus Bridge Pic

This begs further questions. Just how much of Republican politics is driven by the desire to preserve white privilege? What percentage of their base feel hostile towards inclusion and justice for all? And who can be surprised after this missed opportunity to learn that 90% of African Americans vote for Democrats, or that Latinos are increasingly turning to the Democratic Party?

Media pressure was put on the Republicans when it was learned that no leaders were planned to go to Selma. At the last minute House Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced he will to join in the 50th anniversary events. McCarthy is a close friend of Democratic Congressman John Lewis who was beaten on that bridge 50 years ago. The cynical view is that McCarthy is the best Republican representative since his attendance can be forgiven by the bigots on the grounds that he is Lewis’ personal friend. This isn’t to impugn McCarthy’s motives for attending, which I’m sure are genuine.

Political spinners can say whatever they want, but no rational citizen who wants our society to advance can accept any more excuses from those who hold us back. The Republican Party has clearly chosen the wrong side of history. This time it is Republicans who are beating themselves on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.


Historical foot note: The Edmund Pettus Bridge is named for Edmund Winston Pettus, a former Confederate brigadier generalU.S. Senator from Alabama and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

Can a Convicted Felon Vote? And other voting oddities…

Voting rights in America are mostly defined by state constitutions, not our federal Constitution.  A look at all 50 state constitutions finds considerable variation from state to state as to which voting rights are actually protected by explicit constitutional language. All state constitutions include some language which specifies which individuals can and cannot vote.  For example, 49 states say you must be a citizen to vote and 46 states require citizens to be registered before voting. On the other hand, only 20 states constitutionally guarantee that their residents in US military service retain a right to vote in their state when deployed elsewhere.  The other 30 states may well have statues that grant this privilege to solders, but the right isn’t locked into their state constitutions.  Below is a table which shows how common various voter qualification and disqualifications are in the state constitutions.  The article is just another example of how confused we American’s are when it comes to our voting rights.

Number of States WithThis Right
Percent of US Population With ThisRight
Must be A US Citizen
Must be Registered to vote
State’s Deployed Solders Can Vote
Felony Exception
Treason Exception
Incarceration Exception
Mental Capacity Exception
Moral Conduct or other Exception
Restoration from Exception
No quartered solders
Right to Appeal Voter Ineligibility
The greatest variation among state constitutions involves voter disqualifications.  Thirty-seven states don’t allow felons to vote and twelve states also include treason as a voter disqualification, but there are differences in how broadly or narrowly these exceptions are defined.  In Alabama, for example, the Constitution states that a person cannot vote if they have been convicted of a felony “involving moral turpitude.”  Next door In Mississippi, a person who, “has never been convicted of murder, rape, bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy” may vote.  Some state simply state felons can vote and leave it to the legislature to define what this means.  Other states constitutions give their legislature the right to define voter disqualifications, such as in Ohio’s state constitution, which states, “The General Assembly shall have power to exclude
from the privilege of voting, or of being eligible to office, any person convicted of a felony.”
In thirteen states the loss of voting rights for felons extends only while they are incarcerated or on parole.  Another twenty-three states have some language regarding the reinstatement of voting to felons (or those found to be mentally incompetent).  In some cases the restoration process is simple, or unspecified while in other state the bar is very high.  In Massachusetts a convicted felon cannot vote only while incarcerated while in Louisiana the voting rights of a convicted felon can only be restored by a Governor’s a pardon.
There is a great deal of confusion about voting rights because our national dialog tends to gloss over the differences between states.  This confusion apparently  even carries over to discussions of voter rights within a state, as the article below demonstrates.
The author’s intent is to clear up misconceptions about Indiana’s voting rights for those with felony convictions.  In doing so the article actually reinforces some common misconceptions.  In discussing a felon’s right to vote the author implies that the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution somehow apply.  The US Constitution is actually silent on this category of voter disqualification. The US Constitution doesn’t apply here.  Secondly, the article doesn’t make clear  what the Indiana Constitution actually says, which is, “The General Assembly shall have power to deprive of the right of suffrage, and to render ineligible, any person convicted of an infamous crime.”  Instead, readers are told that, “Indiana law restores a person’s right to vote after he or she is no longer incarcerated.”  This may be so, but this isn’t a state constitutional guarantee.  The people of Indianarely on the beneficence of their legislature in granting that privilege.  Nevertheless, the article below reflects the widespread misconceptions about our voting rights.  At some point America should address the larger question of why anyone not actually under state control in a prison should be denied a right to vote.

Felons’ voting rights restored
Gilbert Holmes

Recently, I took it upon myself to conduct an unscientific poll.

I’ve asked colleagues, political activists and friends whether a Hoosier convicted of a felony can vote.

Most said no, and others were uncertain.

That tells me that it’s likely that the majority of Hoosiers are under the impression that if you’ve committed a felony, when it comes to voting it’s one strike and you’re out.

That mistaken impression has led to thousands of disenfranchised voters in Indiana who think that because they’ve been incarcerated, they can no longer take advantage of the voting rights guaranteed them by the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

This de facto voter disenfranchisement ripples across generations and communities, creating entire classes of people who don’t exercise their right to vote.

Indiana law restores a person’s right to vote after he or she is no longer incarcerated.

One reason it’s so common to think that former felons are permanently barred from voting is that 35 states have stricter voting restrictions than Indiana for felons, and in 13 of those states, a felon can permanently lose the right to vote.

But in Indiana, the loss of suffrage applies only during the actual time of incarceration.

Why should you care? People who vote are more likely to volunteer, give to charities and attend school board meetings.

Former felons who vote are less likely to be rearrested, because voting helps people connect and become part of something positive.

The disproportionate number of blacks affected by voter disenfranchisement, more than 1.5 million across the nation, is an even more stunning number when you consider that one in every 15 black men age 18 and older is incarcerated, and the zero-tolerance policies in our schools have created a pipeline straight to prison for many black teenage dropouts in our communities.

When such a large portion of the community is locked in the criminal justice system, you can be sure their interests are not represented either at the polls or in the halls of power.

If you’re a felon, and you’re no longer incarcerated, you have the right to vote.

If you’re on probation, or on parole, you have the right to vote. If you’re placed in a community corrections program, or subject to home detention, under Indiana

law, you still have the right to vote. Voting is a constitutional right, and it’s one all Hoosiers should be proud to exercise.

Gilbert Holmes is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. He wrote this for Indiananewspapers.