IN 1965, a week after the brutal events in Selma, Alabama, President Lyndon B. Johnson laid out for Congress how black Americans had been discouraged and denied the right to vote for over a century.
LBJ’s impassioned speech led to a landmark bill that banned unfair practices at the polls like literacy tests and provided for federal oversight of local voter registration efforts. The Voting Rights Act was signed in August after a month of congressional debate and is still lauded as the most comprehensive and effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted.
The 2006 reauthorization of the VRA expanded to include language assistance, Election Day monitors and pre-approval of voting changes by the Justice Department, factors meant not only to protect the right to vote for African Americans in the South but also Latinos in the Southwest.
But some contend that stripping felons of their right to vote is another insidious form of racial injustice. Mass incarceration has had far-reaching negative effects on the black community, and the relationship between criminal records and voting rights will be explored during the lecture “Re-enfranchising the Disenfranchised: Voting Rights in America” this Thursday, Feb. 5 at the Beach Institute.
Part of Armstrong State University’s Moveable Feast series sponsored by the Liberal Arts Department, the lecture will examine the political, sociological, and legal implications of efforts to restrict and deny access to the vote to African Americans.
“There will be some historical reference, but mostly the lecture will be about how felons have been disenfranchised and the movement to re-enfranchise these individuals—particularly those who have completed their sentence, probation and/or parole,” says Dr. Becky da Cruz, program coordinator and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Armstrong.
Becky da Cruz joins fellow professors Maxine Bryant, Ned Rinalducci and George Brown in a discussion of how poverty, crime and the deprivation of a way to participate in civic life propagate a cycle that is almost impossible to break.
“Full rehabilitation of ex-felons is not complete without allowing them to regain the right to vote,” explains da Cruz.
She argues that “without a voice in how laws are made, who their representatives are and what policies are established,” the formerly incarcerated have a much higher potential to return to crime.
The re-enfranchisement movement has been gaining support across political platforms. Last February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights about the need for further reform of the VRA.
“There is no rational reason to take away someone’s voting rights for life just because they have committed a crime, especially after they have completed their sentence,” Holder told the coalition of politicians, community leaders and criminal justice professionals.
Re-enfranchisement is one of the key tactics the White House’s “Smart on Crime” initiative uses to reduce recidivism among formerly incarcerated individuals. A three-year study conducted by the Florida Parole Commission found that those who had been re-enfranchised after serving their time experienced a recidivism rate of 11 percent, three times less than those whose voting rights had not been returned.
Georgia is one of 20 states that allow the restored voting rights upon completion of a felon’s prison sentence, but da Cruz laments that many don’t realize it.
She hopes that Thursday’s lecture will help educate the public as well as spur activism for a re-enfranchisement policy that’s consistent across all the states. The effort has already been shown to reduce recidivism rates (and therefore crime), and its effects could have a marked effect on society as a whole.
“With the crime rate on the downturn and the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it is the right time to reinvigorate the call to action,” she says.
Re-enfranchising the Disenfranchised: Voting Rights in America
When: 6 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 5
Where: The Beach Institute, King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, 502 East Harris St.
Cost: Free and open to the public