Robert White is an At-Large Councilman serving the District of Columbia and some think he’s insane. White and several of his colleagues are pushing to make DC the first jurisdiction to restore voting rights to prisoners while they’re still incarcerated. White’s legislation would repeal a 1955 law that disenfranchises D.C. residents upon felony convictions. Further, every state except Maine and Vermont has stripped voting rights from prisoners. The issue cannot be viewed apart from race.
Some have always felt a need “to eliminate the darkey as a political factor.” That was said by one of the men who crafted the 1902 Virginia constitution, which imposed a lifetime voting ban on felons. As incarceration is inextricably linked with race, so is the fight for voting rights. That dynamic is in the forefront in Florida at this very moment. In November of 2018 Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment which restored voting rights to 1.4 million felons. In November Andrew Gillum also fell just over 30,000 votes short of becoming the first Black Governor of Florida. Soon after many in the Florida legislature began to back a plan which would hinder ex-felons from voting until they pay back all fines and court fees — a modern day poll tax.
Some like the idea of felons being able to vote after they serve their sentence. Some are fine with them voting while still serving it out. Others are completely okay with ex-offenders never having their full citizenship rights restored. Regardless of how one feels, it must be conceded that there has always been a clear racial motivation attached to these measures. From slavery to convict leasing to mass incarceration, race and criminal justice are tied and we should be candid about that. If White is successful, his legislation will impact some 6,000 DC citizens who are currently incarcerated. However, what happens in DC certainly makes an impact and statement to the entire nation.
“Felon” is often a euphemism for “Black.” Black people have long fought for voting rights and this current fight is simply another manifestation of that — partially revealed by the fact that Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow incarcerated persons to vote. However one may feel about White’s proposal and whatever becomes of it, what is certain is that it will have a radical impact, nationwide.