Researchers Register Voters in County Jails

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Researchers like Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza have documented the political impact of felony disenfranchisement, the ways in which voting restrictions strip away citizenship, civic engagement, and political participation from Black Americans.  But in our own decade-long research program in Midwestern county jails, we found that even where felony disenfranchisement laws had not stripped the incarcerated of their right to vote, most weren’t aware they still had the right to vote.

So, we decided to get the word out to those who eligible voters who might also be incarcerated. Earlier this year, our research team partnered with a local community organizing agency  to register citizens while they were incarcerated. As a result, we successfully enrolled 14% of minimum and medium security inmates in two county jails in the Kansas City area.

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Ahead of registration deadlines for primary elections last June, we spent 5 days registering voters at the two jails. In late September, we returned and spent another 3 days registering voters ahead of the general election. Our process varied. For instance, in June, people signed up beforehand and were brought to us in a room in the jail in small groups. In September we were instead escorted to common areas within individual housing units, where we were announced by a corrections officer and were then allowed to mingle with inmates and complete registration materials. We don’t know how many people in the facilities were already registered or the number of those who were ineligible. However, we were given access to all units at the minimum and medium security levels and were allowed to speak with any interested inmate, except those in medical isolation or those held in solitary confinement.



The good news is that in most states people can vote after completion of a felony conviction, though many don’t realize it. For example, Anthony Papa who completed his sentence for a conviction under the Rockefeller drug laws, recalls:

“I remember very clearly when I was released from prison and tried to vote and I was turned away.  I felt like I was second class citizen because I was powerless to help fix my south Bronx neighborhood that was deteriorating around me. I had to wait five years until I was off of parole in order to vote. When I was allowed to vote I felt complete and was fully welcomed back by society as a citizen.”

Aggressive sentencing for drug possession and sales over the past three decades has meant that felony disenfranchisement affects 6.1 million U.S. citizens, like Anthony Papa.

Still, many inmates still perceived their voting rights lost forever, even when that wasn’t true. It’s simply not true in Kansas and Missouri and 16 other states where voting rights are restored automatically following completion of a felony sentence. And the right to vote is not lost at all in Missouri and Kansas for those with convictions at less than felony level.  Unfortunately, misperceptions on this point are widespread, making the disenfranchisement of incarcerated persons in our states real even where it is not true.

Many of the inmates with whom we spoke at the jails believed they were ineligible to vote. Indeed, during the first round of registration in June, at one of the facilities we learned that some had been given wrong information even as they were signing up for our event by corrections officers who themselves misunderstood the laws. Lack of awareness about voter eligibility may run several layers deep. Our registration efforts thus meant signing up voters and educating citizens—inmates and jail staff alike—about the fact that in Kansas and Missouri past felony records do not affect voter eligibility. Most of the people we spoke didn’t realize that only four states in the U.S. bar voting after completion of a felony sentence. People in these states who have been impacted by policies are working to spread the word about what it means to permanently disenfranchise past felons.



The burden of disenfranchisement falls particularly heavily on Black and Latino citizens. One out of three Black Americans has lost the right to vote due to these laws, compared to 1 out of 56 non-Black voters. Loss of voting rights, however temporarily, is one of the many collateral consequences of policing and sentencing practices that disproportionately target Blacks in the U.S., acting in some sense as a new approach to racial gerrymandering.


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In addition to felony disenfranchisement, Blacks face other barriers to full political participation. Missouri voters, for instance, will decide in November on a measure to amend the Missouri constitution to allow the legislature to pass laws requiring state-issued photo identification at polling places. Photo-ID voting laws, which generally require some form of state-issued (e.g., driver’s license, passport, state-issued ID) identification are in place in 32 states. Opponents of photo ID laws point to evidence that state-issued ID requirements to vote would effectively disenfranchise many older and low-income voters, with many arguing that the impacts of new voter restrictions are likely to be felt disproportionately by Black and Latino/a citizens. Courts recently ruling on similar laws in North Carolina and Texas have agreed with this implication, striking down voter ID requirements as racially discriminating in their effect.

Given the de facto disenfranchisement that occurs when citizens are misinformed about their rights, and the equally real threat to voter rights posed by current ballot measures, we were moved to reach out to potential voters in perhaps the most unlikely of settings, local jails. These efforts involved not only registering voters in advance of the primary and general elections, they included coordinating the delivery of absentee ballots for those who knew they’d still be locked up during both elections. We would underscore that our involvement was about registration, engagement, participation—not about specifically whom or what to vote for. However, to the extent that enlarging and enhancing the franchise is itself a partisan act these days, we plead guilty. In this, we were abetted by jail administrators and staff, who also recognized the importance of affirming all citizens in the exercise of their rights. We were further aided by an agency with deep roots in activism around racial justice and voting rights in our community.


(Early voters wait in long lines in Clark County, Nevada: Image source)

Racially motivated efforts to suppress the vote in this country are diverse in form and dismayingly frequent. Some efforts, like photo-ID measures, seem obvious; others, like the silence and misinformation around felony disenfranchisement, only slightly less so. For those who believe as we do in the importance of a broad franchise to a racially inclusive, democratic—indeed, a just—system, any efforts to restrict citizen access to the ballot must be met with action. We took an opportunity to use our familiarity with the jails to try to make a difference. We don’t know how many of those we registered will vote, although we requested and were granted contact information from most and will be evaluating outcomes post-election. But our purpose in sharing the experience here is to hopefully prompt others to look at their own networks, look for local openings for organizing and activism—for surely even the smallest, most piecemeal acts of justice-making can be fit to Dr. King’s prophetic arc.



~ This blog post was co-written by Megha Ramaswamy and Amanda Emerson.  Megha Ramaswamy is an Associate Professor at University of Kansas School of Medicine. She is trained as a sociologist and works as an applied public health researcher in county jails, designing, implementing and evaluating public health programming. Read more about her team’s work here and follow her on Twitter @Vaginographer.

Amanda Emerson is a PhD candidate in the School of Nursing at University of Missouri – Kansas City. Her research interests lie in creative, community-focused public health interventions to reduce health disparity. Amanda also has a PhD in English, her earlier scholarship focusing on the myth of equality in 18th– and 19th-century American literature.

Former Adviser Axelrod Warns White Racist Hostility to Obama Infects Politics

Ed Pilkington, chief reporter for the Guardian (US), reports:

In an interview with the Guardian before the release of his new autobiography, [David] Axelrod spoke in frank terms about what he perceives as the corrosive influence of race in the Obama era. The former White House senior adviser said that no other president in US history had had a member of Congress shout at him in the middle of a major address – as Joe Wilson of South Carolina did in 2009 with his notorious “You lie!” rebuke – or face persistent questions about his American citizenship, as Obama did from the so-called “birther” movement . … [Axelrod] warned that racial “fear” and hostility toward the first black US president has infected American politics and is partly to blame for Republican intransigence in confronting the president’s agenda. “The fact is, there are some people who are uncomfortable with the changing demographics of our country,” Axelrod said. “To those people, Obama is a living symbol of something they fear, they don’t like, and some of that has spilled into our politics.”


In the book titled, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics (2015) Axelrod writes that

some folks simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of the first black president and are seriously discomforted by the growing diversity of our country. And some craven politicians and rightwing provocateurs have been more than willing to exploit that fear, confusion, and anger.

That is, an entrenched white anger exists on the subject of a black man – with a Muslim name – in the White House.

The white racial frame sheds much light on Axelrod’s discussion of race-involved “fear.” As Joe Feagin explains, the racial hierarchy, material oppression, and the rationalizing white racial frame are key dimensions of the systemic racism created at the top decision-making level by elite white men. Emotions play a vital part in sanctioning white privilege so that whites can discount or disregard the unpleasant truths of racism. Such perverse obliviousness rests firmly on the safeguarding of whites’ racial selves (The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Framing and Counter-Framing).

Beyond US politics, projections on the shifting demographics of race have led to clear expressions of white racial victimization, aggrieved entitlement, and aggressive white racial framing. White elite male controlled news outlets report on anticipated trends with memorable headlines like “Whites losing majority in U.S. in under-5 group,” “White kids will no longer make up a majority in just a few years,” and “Minorities now surpass whites in U.S. births, census shows.” Undoubtedly to perpetuate racist notions of the welfare state, the latter story mentions a seemingly troublesome aside: “[T]he numbers also serve as a guide to where taxpayer dollars could be going in the coming decades.” It fails to mention where taxpayer dollars will be coming from (workers of color, increasingly).

Studies also point to discomfort among whites with regard to the changing demographics of the US, as does the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to nullify strategic parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“Our country has changed,” explained John G. Roberts Jr. –- Chief Justice and elite white male appointed by George W. Bush in 2005. A well-known critic of the 1965 Act for nearly 30 years, and writing for the majority, Roberts explained, “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” Roberts held that “things have changed dramatically” in the South in the nearly 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed. This was in spite of the fact that almost all US civil rights leaders disagreed.

Texas Legislative Action to Restrict Voting

As most readers know, there have been numerous (mostly white) conservative attempts to reduce the voting opportunities and/or rights of voters likely to be liberal or to vote Democratic in various states. These voters are likely to be voters of color. Recently, the Texas Civic Engagement Table sent around a letter from various organizations (including the Dallas Peace Center) about several conservative bills in the Texas House that are aiming at reducing the number of these voters. Here is their informative letter about these bills and how they might affect voting:

Dear Members of the Texas House Elections Committee:

We the undersigned organizations are committed to ensuring that every
eligible voter in Texas has a full and equal opportunity to participate in
the election process. Today you will be considering several bills in your
chamber (HB2093, HB2372 and HB2848) that we feel limit and
discourage participation in the voting process.

HB 2093, introduced by Representative Harless, would roll back access
to early voting from 12 days to 6 days with an optional Sunday. In 2011,
Florida experimented with reducing its Early Voting days from 14 to 8.
The results were long lines, frustration of voters and election workers,
and again subjected Florida to widespread media criticism. Texas should
learn from Florida’s mistake and not reduce its popular early voting
program. The percentage of voters who use early voting has increased
with each election. 50% of voters cast their ballot in the early voting
period in 2004, over 66% in 2008 and over 63% in 2012. Early voting
has existed in Texas since 1987 and is a system that works in Texas.
There is no reason to fix a system that is not broken.

HB 2372, introduced by Representative Klick, would establish an
interstate voter registration crosscheck program. While this sounds like a
good idea in theory, technology has not matured to a point where this
program could be done with out improperly removing otherwise eligible
voters. This bill does not specify with which state Texas would be
cooperating, what data fields would be used to generate a match, or
what, if any, security protocols would be put in place to protect the
integrity of the data provided to other states. In 2012, Texas experience
with comparing registration data to another database was a failure.
Texas attempted to compare registration data to the Social Security
Administration death records. This lead to thousands of letters notifying
voters that they were presumed dead based on criteria that the Texas
Secretary of State specifically said was weak.

HB2848, Introduced by Representative White, would allow for video
monitoring of voters at early voting locations. Voting is a private act and
should be respected as so. Video taping voters creates a public record
that could be abused by some and used to intimidate and discourage
voting in the future. Americans have a long held expectation that voting
is a confidential and personal act. The idea of video taping any part of
that process violated that expectation.

Videotaping voters may be a violation of federal law because it could be
considered a form of intimidation and coercion. The Department of
Justice has stated previously that videotaping voters without their permission potentially violates the Voting Rights Act. Texas should not
continue to be on the forefront of VRA violations.

In conclusion, we thank you for taking the time to consider our concerns
on the three elections related bills you will be reviewing today. As
organizations that work to educate and engage Texans to participate in
the democratic process, we hope you take our concerns seriously, and
vote against passing these bills out of committee.

For more information on these bills, contact the Executive Director of the Texas Civil Engagement Table:

Please contact Sondra Haltom at or 512-773-1471 if you have any questions…. On the positive side, SB 315 establishes online voter registration — which is essential to modernizing our elections system and will make registering to vote more accessible to more people. … Lesley Nicole Ramsey, Executive Director Texas Civic Engagement Table, PO Box 163253, Austin, TX 78716

Civil Rights: Revolution or Counterrevolution?

In Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” My contention is that we are witnessing a similar retrogression in the wake of the Second Reconstruction. Blacks are no longer in the back of the bus—indeed we’re in the White House!—but this has been manipulated, not to advance the cause of racial justice, but on the contrary, to camouflage the dismantling of affirmative action and antiracism policies generally….

WHAT BETTER EXAMPLE of counterrevolution than the passage of Voter ID laws that are nothing more than an incarnation of the poll tax and the grandfather clause — race neutral on their face but patently racist both in their intent and their impact. According to the Brennan Center, these laws will effectively disfranchise as many as 5 million voters, disproportionately black and Latino. Add to this another 6 million impacted by restrictions on felon’s voting rights. So disfranchisement is back. And that’s not all. Convict labor is back, implicating major corporations who have found a reserve army of cheap labor in the prison industrial complex. Back, too, are vagrancy laws in new guise. In New York City, that famed citadel of tolerance, last year there were nearly 800,000 stop-and-frisk searches, 87 percent involving blacks or Latinos. Indeed, so is lynching. What else was the Trayvon Martin case if not Emmett Till all over again—an official license and cover-up for killing a young black man who crossed the color line?

The seeds of counterrevolution were planted even before the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Laws, and came to early fruition in the 1968 election when Humphrey won only 10 percent of the white Southern vote. (Obama won 20 percent of the white vote in the Deep South, a grim measure of “progress.”) As social scientists say in their prosaic fashion, this marked the beginning of “a political realignment,” as the “Solid South” turned solidly Republican. But let’s be clear at what is involved here: “Negroes” were granted elementary rights of citizenship, and within a decade the entire South seceded from the Democratic Party! What was even more ominous was George Wallace’s unexpected traction with white voters in the urban North. The handwriting was on the wall: as Thomas Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in Chain Reaction, the Republican Party would emerge as the party of segregation…. One figure speaks tons: 89 percent of Romney votes came from white non-Hispanics.

With Obama in the White House, Republicans can have it both ways. They shamelessly tap the reservoir of racism to discredit Obama, to deride national health insurance as “Obamacare,” tagging any social welfare policy as stealth reparations for blacks who exist as freeloaders on the public treasure, and now to unconscionably transgress democratic principle by restoring Jim Crow subterfuges to suppress black voting rights. At the same time, Republicans reap the advantage of having a President who puts a black face on neoliberalism at home and imperialism abroad.

Stephen Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College & the Graduate Center, City University of New York. This is an excerpt of an article in the current issue of New Politics.

White Stratagems: Interfering with People Of Color’s Vote

What in the world could Arizona’s challenge of the Voting Rights Act and the requirement passed in 12 states that citizens show government-issued picture ID’s before voting have in common? The answer is simple: Both are being used by white racists to impede people of color’s right to vote and nullify their vote’s impact.

One tactic is the removal of the Federal Government oversight of the often tainted state electoral process. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s anti-racist agenda. It outlawed poll taxes and other obstacles that impeded people of color’s access to the ballot box.

Arizona has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of parts of the Voting Rights Act. The parts in question require states that did not meet certain requirements in 1972 to secure federal approval for any state legislation or change that could affect voting. Arizona is one of the states.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who filed the lawsuit, said that the original criteria for pre-approval are no longer relevant or constitutional, and Arizona no longer needs the federal government’s scrutiny. “The historical Voting Rights Act was meant to overcome horrendous voting discrimination that occurred in the South,” Horne said. “We are being severely penalized for something that happened in 1972 that was corrected in 1975.”

Many Mexican American legislators disagree. They argue that federal government oversight is still necessary in Arizona. They say that the Department of Justice was forced to intervene on numerous occasions, as was the case ten years ago when it mandated a redrawing of proposed legislative boundaries that would have put Mexican American voters at a disadvantage. Rep. Richard Miranda states their current goal succinctly:

We are asking the Independent Redistricting Commission not to dilute the impact of minority voters.

A second subterfuge pertains to the requirement that citizens show government-issued ID’s before they can vote. In an August 26 New York Times Op-EdJohn Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia, discusses a law passed by 12 Republican state legislatures this year. The law requires “that citizens obtain and display unexpired government-issued photo identification before entering the voting booth.” It so happens that as many as 25 percent of African American voters lack adequate identification.

Conservative supporters of the law allege that this regulation is necessary to forestall voter impersonation. However, there is no evidence that voter impersonation is a widespread problem. When the state of Indiana defended its picture ID provision before the Supreme Court, it could not produce evidence of even one instance of the offense in Indiana. Similarly, in the last ten years Kansas, another state that passed the legislation, experienced a larger number of alleged U.F.O. sightings than claims of voter impersonation.

I believe that if these white attacks fail, more will follow. Racism is a tough nut to crack.

Faking Democracy: More Evidence of Racist Barriers in US Voting

Cord Jefferson at TheRoot has a good piece on the 1965 Voting Rights Act now 45 years later. There are still many barriers to black voting, both as a result of disenfranchisement because of (often nonviolent) crimes and very direct discriminatory blocking of voters of color:

Currently, 10 states — including Florida, Virginia, Arizona and Kentucky — permanently disenfranchise at least some convicted felons, and 20 more require criminals to complete prison, parole and probation before being allowed to vote again. … An estimated 5.3 million Americans, 4 million of whom are out of prison, are denied the right to vote based on their felony convictions. About a third of them are black, including 13 percent of all African-American men.

Much of this disenfranchisement, as Michelle Alexander has shown in her fine book, The New Jim Crow, comes from being imprisoned for drug crimes that whites, who do much of the drug crime, rarely get imprisoned for.

There is also the issue the substantial discrimination against black voters and other voters of color that still is carried out by white conservative forces, including Republican operatives. As I pointed out recently in Racist America (second edition, 2010):

Researchers have identified an array of blocking strategies used by white officials to reduce black representation: gerrymandering political districts, changing elective offices into appointive offices, adding new qualifications for office, purging voter-registration rolls, suddenly changing the location of polling places, creating difficult registration procedures, and using numerous other strategies to dilute the black vote. One dilution strategy consists of intentionally setting up or continuing at-large electoral systems, instead of utilizing elections by smaller districts. The purpose is to enable white voters, who dominate the larger political unit, to determine who will be the political representatives in that unit. Research data on local and state elections indicate that, taken together, these strategies have significantly reduced black political power in many areas.

Jefferson also notes that legislators have been slow to do anything about these mostly white-generated anti-voter felonies:

For five years now, lawmakers have attempted to push through the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, to no avail. That means it’s still not a federal crime to knowingly lie to voters in order to keep them from the polls, even during a federal election. Maryland Senator Ben Cardin spoke to the Deceptive Practices Act’s importance in 2007, citing a false flyer that had been handed out in black communities in Milwaukee during the 2004 presidential election.

The flyer made phony, sometimes wild claims–such as that a traffic ticket disqualified you from voting. Still no protective law has been passed. Could it be that the U.S. is still far from being a real democracy?