While charges fly over the handful of votes that will declare our next
president, there is scant commentary about the 647,100 U.S. citizens who
were denied the right to vote in Florida last week.
Our fierce belief in the unalienable right of citizens to select their own
leaders is one of the great hallmarks of American Democracy. And, like many
noble visions, it has taken a lot of sacrifice and courage to bring that
vision forth.. Since the American Revolution our small tent of democracy
has steadily grown. Granted at first solely to the white male Founders, the
vote has since been extended to former slaves, Native Americans, women, the
less literate, the landless, the poor, and others initially denied citizen
In Florida today, however, over 5 percent of the adult population are not
allowed to vote. This largely covert repeal of suffrage rights includes
roughly one-in-three African-American men. Florida undercuts their
constituency more severely than any other state. Following Governor Jeb Bush
's Florida, Governor George Bush's Texas has the nation's second largest
group of disenfranchised voters. Between these two states alone, over 1.2
million citizens, including more than a 1/3 of a million African Americans,
are banned from the voting booth because of felony convictions on their
Disenfranchisement practices, like sentencing guidelines, vary widely from
state to state. Some citizens regain their right to vote in time, but in
Florida many lose that unique herald of democracy for life. In many states
even felons only sentenced to probation or those honorably discharged from
parole can be stripped of their civil rights. The American Revolution was
fought over similar injustices perpetrated against the "unrepresented"
colonial subjects of King George.
Nationwide, almost 4 million adults today, a third of them
African-Americans, are subjected to this statutory gerrymandering. Many
elections are decided by smaller margins. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood
Marshall noted that disenfranchisement laws originated, "in the fogs and
fictions of feudal jurisprudence." But it is likely that most of us imagine
21st century American Justice should evolve beyond European norms for the
Middle Ages. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist observes
that, historically, these laws were deliberately "enacted with the intent of
disenfranchising blacks." Given that most African-Americans voted
Democratic in the last election, the face of American politics would
dramatically shift were these barriers to voter participation finally torn
We are the only industrial democracy to disenfranchise massive voting blocks
from the electorate. Rather than leading the free world today, we now trail
it by a shocking distance on this account. The few nations that do practice
voter disenfranchisement do so only toward those few who, through acts of
terrorism, treason or other such crimes, demonstrate contempt for the
democratic process itself. South Africa, for example, another nation with a
troubled history of black and white race relations, does not deny the vote
to felons or even to incarcerated prisoners. By comparison, it seems
grotesque to sentence an American youth caught with fifteen dollars worth of
drugs to lifelong exile from a participatory government. The practice of
disenfranchisement does not encourage the marginalized to ever embrace the
system or attempt to work within it. If anything, it breeds contempt for the
law and cynicism about our capacity for justice and a truly representative
democracy. Let us resolve to do something before the next election to
restore our nation to one in which the people, all the people, decide who
will rule and how.
Dr. Aaron Kipnis is a psychology professor in Santa Barbara and author of,
Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers, and Counselors Can Help 'Bad Boys'
Become Good Men. For more information please visit www.malepsych.com.
Dr. Aaron Kipnis
Santa Barbara , CA. 93140
Adapted from an excert from:
Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers and Counselors Can Help "Bad
Boys" become Good Men.
All the above statistics are documented, with citations, in the book.
© 1999, 2000 Aaron
Kipnis, Ph.D. All rights reserved.