In many parts of the country, it’s becoming easier than ever for former felons to vote. A growing number of states have loosened restrictions, such as allowing people to cast ballots while still on parole or probation. But there is one region that still has a penchant for purging felons from the rolls: the South. An APM Reports/Pacific Standard analysis of federal data shows that, in the past decade, the number of registered voters removed from the rolls across the South due to a conviction has nearly doubled. That trend comes at a time when overall crime rates have been declining. States with the largest voting-aged, African-American populations tend to have some of the strictest laws. And that’s created a disproportionate impact on minority voters. In fact, the laws were initially designed 150 years ago to suppress African-American political influence.
Bans on voting by felons arose in the years following the Civil War, after adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal legal protections for all men. African Americans, having gained the right to vote and run for office, were a growing political force in former Confederate states, and, with Reconstruction ending, southern states were scrambling to draft new constitutions. Lawmakers couldn’t legally ban African-American participation. So they found ways to tamp down African-American voting by passing laws that looked race-neutral on their face but were intended to discourage black voters. Between 1890 and 1906, every state across the South adopted bans on felons voting. At the same time, prisons swelled with former slaves and poor whites who were arrested during a crackdown on petty offenses, like vagrancy, under new, so-called Black Codes.
The felon-voting bans were passed ostensibly to ensure election integrity. But the true intent was made clear enough by some delegates intent on suppressing African-American influence. Among them was Solomon Saladin “S.S.” Calhoon, who told fellow delegates at the Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890: “We came here to exclude the Negro. Nothing short of this will answer.”
More than a century later, many of the legal barriers to voting enacted during the Jim Crow era have been overturned. But the bans on felon voting have survived and are being employed most fervently in the region where they were most widely embraced post-slavery.