Last month at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, I had the opportunity to see Abraham Lincoln’s draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, written in his remarkably elegant, almost feminine handwriting. I was surprised by my reaction. I felt a warm flush of gratitude, and even found myself murmuring “Thank you.” The freedom of four million people is no small thing.
(MORE: Cover Story: Lincoln to the Rescue by David von Drehle)
Lincoln not only advocated black freedom, but in the last speech of his life, he voiced support for giving the vote to some freed black men as well as about 200,000 black Civil War veterans, a decision that literally cost him his life. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was in the audience that night and upon hearing Lincoln’s views, turned to his companion and said “that means ni**er citizenship. Now by God, I’ll put him through.” Two days later, Booth murdered the President.
Knowing that, I began to wonder what Lincoln would make of controversial laws denying far too many blacks the right to vote today. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her book, The New Jim Crow, more black people are either in prison or jail, or on probation, or parole than were enslaved when the Civil War began. What that means is that in 2004, almost 280,000 black women were denied the vote, even if they had already served their time. And if the research that we have from 2010 holds true for today, at least 1.4 million black men will be denied their right to vote on this upcoming election day. Nationwide, almost 8% of all African Americans — and 13% of all black men — will not be able to cast a vote next month. These laws hit blacks disproportionately hard. Although 3.9 million whites also lost the right to vote due to these laws, that figure represents roughly 2% of their total population. Overall, these numbers are so troubling that in 2008, a United Nations Committee studied the issue and urged the United States to reform these laws.
These so called “felony disenfranchisement” policies were first enacted in Southern states beginning in 1870 when the 15th amendment giving black men the right to vote was ratified. The policies were designed to keep blacks from going to the polls, and they continue to do so today. The laws prohibit voting in both state and federal elections and, as was true in the 19th century, are enacted on a state-by-state basis. As a recent report from the Sentencing Project shows, while nine states impose a lifetime voting ban on convicted felons, in 32 states felons can vote after completing parole and three states have no prohibition and even allow prisoners to vote. A majority of those denied access to voting are in the South: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia and in some of these states, felony convictions have led to staggeringly high percentages of blacks losing their right to vote. For example, this year in Virginia such laws will deny 20 percent of the overall black population the right to vote, and in Florida the number is an even higher 23%.
Unlike giving black men the vote in Lincoln’s time, public opinion today largely favors restoring voting rights to felons after they have served their time. In one of the few polls on the issue, University of Minnesota Professor Christopher Uggen conducted a telephone survey involving a random sample of 1,000 people. Sixty percent thought voting rights should be restored as soon as an individual left prison and 68% thought we should wait until they had completed parole. But only 31% believed that current prisoners should be allowed to vote, which may be in part because it could be quite easy for prison officials to coerce the votes of those still behind bars.
For those who have completed their sentence however, research shows that when voting rights are restored, they have a much lower chance of becoming repeat offenders, and are more productively integrated back into their communities.
In Lincoln’s day, John Wilkes Booth was far from alone in his views about black people and voting. Following Lincoln’s death, black enfranchisement continued to be hotly and even violently contested throughout the South for the next 100 years, up to and even after the passage of the voting rights act in 1965. But considering that today enfranchisement for former felons enjoys widespread public support, we need only turn that support into political will and then action. We know what Lincoln would do. The question is, are we willing to follow his example?