A run-down of some of the efforts to restore ex-felons' voting rights in the South

Facing South has been following on the numerous campaigns to franchise former felons happening around the South this election season.

The South has always been disproportionately impacted by felon disenfranchisement, and with the legacies of voter suppression and Jim Crow, a racial bias has always been evident. The subject of ex-felon voting in the South garnered media attention in the United States in the 2000 presidential election when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush carried Florida by 537 votes amid claims of widespread voting irregularities, including allegations that minority voters were turned aside from the polls after being falsely identified as ex-felons, reports Stateline.org.

In fact, research has shown that if current and former felons had been allowed to vote, the outcome of as many as seven U.S. Senate races and one presidential election since 1978 might have been altered, according to the 2003 study by Northwestern University sociologists published in the American Sociological Review.

According to the study, the outcome of the most contested presidential race in history, the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election, would almost certainly have been reversed had voting rights been extended to any category of disenfranchised felons: Had only ex-felons been enfranchised in Florida and participated at the estimated rate of Florida turnout (27.2 percent) and with the Democratic preference (68.9 percent), they would have yielded an additional 60,000 net votes for Al Gore. This would have been more than enough to overwhelm Bush's narrow victory margin.

In fact, before changes in Florida's lifetime felony disenfranchisement law last year, 18.8 percent of African Americans in the state were ineligible to vote, according to the ACLU. Today, there are two states that still have lifetime disenfranchisement for ex-offenders: Kentucky and Virginia, where an estimated 25 percent of African-American men won't be able to vote.

Nationally, an estimated 13 percent of African-American men today are still disenfranchised, according to The Sentencing Project, making black men the single most disenfranchised demographic in the United States.

Here are some other national statistics from The Sentencing Project:

  • An estimated 5.3 million Americans, or one in forty-one adults, have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction.
  • Given current rates of incarceration, three in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40 percent of black men may permanently lose their right to vote.
  • 2.1 million disenfranchised persons are ex-offenders who have completed their sentences.
  • The state of Florida had an estimated 960,000 ex-felons who were unable to vote in the 2004 presidential election.
  • Thirty-five states prevent parolees from voting, while 30 ban those on probation from casting ballots.
  • Eleven states place restrictions on ex-offenders' voting rights even after they serve their sentences.
  • Nine states ban ex-felons from voting or impose waiting periods.

The Sentencing Project estimates that at least 16 states have eased voting restrictions on former felons since 1996. Stateline.org has a rundown on some of the efforts, reporting that:

...Groups, ranging from grassroots get-out-the-vote organizations to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are working to identify and register thousands of citizens with criminal records -- many of them minorities -- who may not know they are eligible to vote under often-complicated state voting laws.
The governors of the three states widely considered to have the toughest felony disenfranchisement laws in the nation - Florida, Kentucky and Virginia - recently relaxed some of their rules or simplified the process for restoring voting rights. That has led advocacy groups to launch new efforts to register ex-felons in those states, potentially bringing tens of thousands of new voters into the political process.

Stateline provides this rundown on voting rights efforts in those three states:

  • In Florida, where ex-felons previously had to go through an often lengthy state review process before their voting rights were restored, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist has pushed through changes that have made 112,000 former convicts eligible to cast ballots this year. But only a fraction of those newly eligible to vote - about 9,000 - have registered so far, as many former convicts were unaware of the recent changes.
  • Virginia, a key battleground state, is the only state other than Kentucky that still bans ex-felons from voting unless they apply for a reprieve from the governor, Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine promised earlier this year to speed up his review of applications. As a result, the ACLU, NAACP and others have converged on the state to urge ex-felons to apply. Already, Kaine has approved a third more applications than were granted in the 2004 election cycle, according to media reports.
  • In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has eliminated state requirements that ex-felons write an essay, pay a $2 fee and obtain character references before applying to have their voting rights restored. Kentucky is not considered a battleground state, but advocacy groups there also are urging ex-felons to apply to vote and plan to push the Legislature next year to make sweeping changes to the law.