New York's disenfranchisement laws date back to 1846. But most states passed similar laws in the years just after the civil war.
Marc Mauer is the assistant director of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization for prisoners in Washington DC.
"In the late 1800s," explains Mauer, Southern legislators were adopting felon disenfranchisement laws with the specific intent of excluding black voters. Absolutely at the same historical period when poll taxes, literacy requirements were being adopted by many of Southern legislatures as well. All with the express purpose of disenfranchising black voters--so much so that one Southern legislator at the time referred to the felon disenfranchisement laws as almost an insurance policy."
Today these laws still affect African Americans disproportionately. Nationwide, one in eight black men are barred from voting. From state to state, the laws vary considerably. Only Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote -- the other 48 states don't. Some U.S. states also take away the voting rights of those on parole or probation. And in a dozen states, voting rights are permanently taken away from anyone who has committed a felony; a punishment unheard of in the rest of the Western world.
It's these laws that Hayden is determined to change. On Saturday mornings, he has a radio show on inmates and criminal justice.
After the show, he continues to talk about the issue on the streets of his Harlem neighborhood. One of the people he stops to talk to is Abdula Aziz, a martial arts teacher and friend of Hayden's.
Hayden: We're asking the general question, Should they have the right to vote?
AZIZ: We just don't want rapists or people that's done unspeakable crimes to try to influence our decision-makers when it come to putting people in positions...
HAYDEN: Now what would your response be when over 85 percent are us-African Americans and Hispanic? Now every time they take a busload of people out of Harlem, and they send a busload upstate it discriminates.
AZIZ: As a man, let me say, I'm going to retract my statement (laughs)...
Hayden is very convincing. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund thinks so too. They've taken up his cause and his suit has become a class action on behalf of black and Latino prisoners and parolees in New York and the communities they come from. The suit charges the law is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Janai Nelson is a lead lawyer on the case. She sees the issue in the context of history, part of a long and continuing struggle for voting rights.
"We excluded women for a long time," explains Nelson. "We excluded non-property holders, we excluded other minorities-- despite the fact that this is really the bedrock of our society. It really shouldn't be viewed any differently then any other struggle for suffrage in this country."
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