Stranger than Christine O'Donnell: Covering 21st Century Disenfranchisement

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Alex Gronke
September 20, 2010

Political pundits marveled at the news last week that only 30,000 voters in Delaware toyed with the national balance of power by electing an anti-masturbation advocate with bad credit as the Republican Party's nominee for the United States Senate. But Joe Brooks of Policy Link said that reporters following November's races should pay closer notice to the millions of men of color around the country not allowed to vote at all. In Delaware, for example, ex-felons are banned from the voting booth for five years. How many citizens in Delaware didn't vote Tuesday because they are convicted marijuana smokers?

A decade after the voter roll purges exposed by Bush v Gore, and 45 years after the Voting Rights Act, the barriers that keep men of color from voting remain mostly invisible in the media, said Brooks, Policy Link's Vice President for Civic Engagement. According to The Sentencing Project, a think tank in Washington D.C., '5.3 million Americans have currently or permanently lost their voting rights because of a felony conviction.' More than a third - 1.7 million -  are black men. Indeed, 13 percent of all black men have lost the vote. And a report this year from the Sentencing Project predicts that one in three black men can expect disenfranchisement in their lives. 'These people are demonized, cast aside, and pushed under the rug, the media needs to put a face on these people who are denied one of our most fundamental values,' said Brooks.

Felony disenfranchisement laws vary by state, and some men with felony convictions may unwittingly deny themselves a ballot by wrongly assuming a stint in jail stripped them of their voting rights, said Tunua Thrash, the director of innovation at the Greenlining Institute, which is fighting to make sure communities of color are included next year when California's Congressional districts are redrawn.

Over the decades, gerrymandered political boundaries have silenced voters of color as effectively as more blatant forms of disenfranchisement, said Thrash. She said that reporters can cover these boundaries as political creations drawn to amplify or stifle the voice of particular voters. As an example of the thorny problems journalists can report, Thrash pointed to the question of where to count the California's 170,000 prisoners. Should they be part of the district where they are imprisoned, or the district where they are expected to return when they are released?

This year, journalists in California have an interesting political spectacle to cover, one that casts light on the obstacles between men of color and a ballot. For the first time, a commission of citizens, instead of the State Legislature, will draw the districts for state lawmakers. If the 12-person commission has the same demographics as the state, the majority of its members would be Latino and black. While that's not likely to happen, said Thrash, the process provides a good opportunity to educate voters of color about voting rights.

And education is critical, said Ana Henderson, director of opportunity and inclusion at UC Berkeley's Earl Warren Institute. Journalists should prepare themselves for the complexities of the Voting Rights Act and the decades of case law that govern the way political boundaries can be drawn. 'It's complicated, but not impossible to understand,' said Henderson. She said that journalists covering redistricting and its impacts on men of color can look at how people have been counted in the past, and how that information has been used to make political districts.

Legal disenfranchisement for men of color is more complex than the political past of Christine O'Donnell, the Republican Senate candidate in Delaware, but for journalists covering the nation's political landscape it's an area rich with important and interesting stories.



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