Disenfranchisement also has a profound effect on society as a whole, says Chris Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. He found that had felons been allowed to vote in the last presidential election, it would have changed the course of history.
"We looked at the 2000 election, of course, which was very hotly contested," explains Uggen. "When we add in the disenfranchised felons, we find that Al Gore would have likely won the popular vote by over million votes; and that indeed, in Florida alone, Gore would have picked up 60,000 to 80,000 votes. Enough to swamp the narrow victory margin that George Bush picked up in that state."
Uggen also found that shutting felons out of the process impacts state and national politics. Had felons been allowed to vote over the last couple decades, races across the country might have looked very different. That's because when given the chance, felons vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Their report showed that if felons could vote, the Republicans would have lost six or seven more Senate races, including those won by John Warner of Virginia and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Had that happened, Democrats would have retained control of the U.S. Senate.
Nonetheless, with few exceptions, Democrats in Congress have not championed the issue. Legislation to allow ex-prisoners to vote nationwide was brought up once in 2002 but failed. Uggen suggests that appearing soft on crime might cost Democrats more votes then they would gain. In addition, say those who follow money and politics in Washington, felons don't get a lot of attention because, as a group, they can't exactly fill Democratic coffers.
Janai Nelson of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says that when it comes to voters, those in power are content with the status quo.
"People who are already in office are successful," explains Nelson. "They've made their way into office and they've relied on the political system as it exists and very few people want to rock the boat and bring in a new constituency that they may not be familiar with."
Polls have shown that 80 percent of Americans support restoring the right to vote to prisoners who have completed their sentence. For Jazz Hayden the issue couldn't be simpler: all Americans should be allowed to vote.
"The vote in America represents power because come election day, whether I go to the election, the voting booth and Bill Gates goes to the voting booth all of us have one vote. George Bush, Bill Gates and myself. And it's probably the only time in America that we're all equal," says Hayden. "And to deny me that right is to say that I'm not a citizen. I'm right back in the same situation that my ancestors were in."
The class action suit, Hayden vs. Pataki is expected to go to trial in federal court in New York in 2005.
Throughout American history, who is allowed to vote has been a moving target. But slowly, the franchise is expanding, says Lloyd Leonard of the League of women voters.
Leonard says that Americans have always been caught between two opposing forces when it comes to voting. An impulse to be inclusive and a backlash from those who want to safeguard the vote.
"When our country was founded," says Leonard, "only white male property owners were allowed to vote and so the history of voting in this country has been the history of reaching out and broadening the number of people, the kinds of people who can vote.
"We saw the constitutional amendments after the Civil War to make it so African Americans could vote. We saw the constitutional amendment that allowed women to vote. We have seen the expansion of the franchise. At the same time we have seen resistance."
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