What Would Lincoln Think About Laws That Deny Felons The Right To Vote?

Lincoln died because of his support for giving blacks the vote. What would he make of "felony disenfranchisement" laws that disproportionately prevent black men from voting?

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Dave Etheridge-Barnes / Getty Images

The statue of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial

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.

(MORE: Touré: Put To Death for Being Black? New Hope Against Judicial System Bias)

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%.

(MORE: Viewpoint: Will Blacks Vote For Obama Because He’s Black?)

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?

11 comments
DamienCross
DamienCross

actually Lincoln did not think blacks were equal to whites or should have the vote, something history fails to remember -

Abraham Lincoln Quote

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

by:

Abraham Lincoln
(1809-1865) 16th US President
Source:

Fourth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858

UMMLocal12
UMMLocal12

"But considering that today enfranchisement for former felons enjoys widespread public support ..."   

Where did that come from?  Maybe widespread support among associate professors in Ivy League schools located in NY.

cm6096
cm6096

If Lincoln had the benefit of hindsight... I wonder what he'd think about turning so many criminals loose on society. 

JimBauer
JimBauer

In that it applies equally to all felons of every race, gender, and creed, this law denies no race the right to vote.  I take offense at the implication that blacks are somehow more felonious in nature than whites and, therefore, do suffer disproportionately greater hardship to live within reasonable constraints of criminal law.  Philosophies to the contrary insult the character and impugn the capability of an entire race.  This racism is particularly insidious because it is condoned and even promoted from within.

The right to vote is not free: it comes at the cost of submission to governance.This is democracy.The alternative is anarchy and chaos.

Hiro
Hiro

"I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be differences, I … am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. [A negro] is not my equal in many respects certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment." — August 21, 1858- Pre Election Debate speech by the 16th President of the United States of America

Did he have a moral epiphany between the time he was running for office and before he died...?

AshleyLawton
AshleyLawton

I used to agree that felons should not have the right to vote. It made me feel morally superior to think that I, having made responsible decisions in my life, deserved to have my opinion heard. Criminals, who made very irresponsible decisions, gave up that privilege . And that's what it came down to. For me, I was rewarded by having the RIGHT to vote. For criminals, they were punished by having their PRIVILEGE taken away.

There's the rub. Voting isn't a privilege. It is a Right. Do criminals lose their right to religion? Of course not! Religion can help rehabilitate -- and I just learned that voting can too. Do they lose their freedom of speech? Sort of. Their communications are monitored while in prison, but people have written entire novels. Do they lose their right to bare arms? Yes, but they can get that overturned. What I'm trying to say is that, legally, we're equating allowing a criminal to vote for issues or representatives the same as a criminal owning an inherently violent weapon . . . which is absolutely ridiculous!

If I were to say voting rights were similar to any other, it would be to free speech. The two work hand in hand -- speech allows us to change people's values. Voting allows us to establish those values into our government. Both have restrictions, require responsibility from the actor, and have the ability to be both a giant tidal wave or a tiny drop in the sea (collectively and individually).There are plenty of people in this country who have made seriously irresponsible decisions (but not illegal ones) that we wouldn't want voting because we think that irresponsibility would carry over. And the truth is that it does. But a democracy is about having the government reflect the imperfect will of the people. ALL PEOPLE.

And a significant percentage of our population is criminals. Out of all the countries in the WORLD, we have the highest number of people in prison per capita. Is it that the United States simply has more deviants? Unlikely. Our staggeringly high prisoner population (who are disproportionately black), instead indicates something broken within our system.

Right now, we only hear the voices of law enforcement, judges, and law-abiding citizens. We're missing the criminals' side. As prisoners, they see a side of the justice system that those other people can't. Their unique perspective could, improve not only the prison system, but the legal, education, poverty, and welfare systems. Criminals are the living, breathing examples of how the system failed. If we simply write those people off, then we're ignoring the opportunity to repair what's broken and prevent it from happening again.

rclegg
rclegg

The history in this column is almost all false:  These laws were on the books before the Civil War, those who wrote the Fourteenth Amendment did not think that felons should vote (Lincoln would likely have agreed with his fellow Republicans then on this), and no law currently on the books was passed to keep African Americans from voting.  If you aren’t willing to follow the law yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote. The right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in. Read more about this issue on our website here [ http://www.ceousa.org/voting/voting-news/felon-voting/538-answering-the-challenges-to-felon-disenfranchisement ] and our congressional testimony here: [ http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/pdf/Clegg100316.pdf ].

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

What tripe!  Invoking President Lincoln regarding the issue of felons losing their voting rights is nothing more than journalistic sleight of hand.  The issue is "should convicted felons lose the right to vote?"  The writer would have the reader believe that this is a conspiracy to keep blacks from voting.  Turn the question around: "why should (any) convicted criminals have the right to vote?"  If the writer wants more black Americans to vote, she should encourage them to stop breaking the law.  The RIGHT to vote is sacrificed when you break the law.

Constance
Constance

It is an universal right to vote. But not only for the black of course, but also those who are freed and come back to their rehabilitation.

DCELLE
DCELLE

@JimBauer Hello! When i read this I though wow is it just blacks that are felons? 

UMMLocal12
UMMLocal12

Yes, he did.  It is very well documented in his writings and finds expression in the Emancipation Declaration and subsequent statements both private and public.

One can also question how much the 1858 statement was influenced by pressure to win the election.  It seems that the stement you quote was pretty close to Lincoln's real belief at the time.  At one point Lincoln even considered  a plan to move all the slaves to a foreign country.  His beliefs and attitudes evolved substantially during the war and were very much conditioned by personal experience.