In her sensational work, The New Jim Crowcivil rights attorney Michelle Alexander uncovers the manifold parallels between the contemporary regime of mass incarceration and the era of Jim and Jane Crow.  We at WIT have reflected upon the racially unjust character of the War on Drugs and its resemblance to the War on Terror in greater depth here, here, and here.

A new study from The Sentencing Project affirms Alexanders’ thesis, demonstrating the way in which the War on Drugs disproportionately disenfranchises African-Americans.

— “Approximately 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population–1 of every 40 adults– is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.”

— “The number of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has escalated dramatically in recent decades…There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1976, and over 5.85 million in 2010.”

— “1 of every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans. Nearly 7.7% of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.”

— “African American disenfranchisement rates also vary significantly by state. In three states— Florida (23 percent), Kentucky (22 percent), and Virginia (20 percent)– more than one in five African Americans is disenfranchised.”

In this presidential election year, we ought to pay special attention to the case of Florida, which disenfranchises a higher percentage of its African American citizens than any other state in the union.

With its 29 electoral votes and famously purple presidential politics, Florida is an increasingly pivotal state.  Only two states, Texas and California, hold more electoral college votes than Florida.  In 2000, Bush won Florida by just a few hundred votes.  In 2004, Bush bested Kerry by only a 5% margin, and, in 2008, Obama claimed an even narrower 2.8% margin of victory. In Florida, more than most places, every vote counts.  A candidate who wins Florida has a pretty good shot of winning the entire election.

Given that African Americans vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, this is a really big deal.  The state with the third most electoral college votes disenfranchises nearly a quarter of its black voters, who vote overwhelmingly “blue.”

I wonder, would Florida have elected three Republican governors in a row if black Floridians could vote at the same rate as their more conservative white neighbors?  Would Bush have been elected in 2000? (It seems that he certainly would not have been.)  What about 2004?

Would Florida even be a purple state if it weren’t for the disproportionate disenfranchisement of its black citizens?

In determining who gets to vote, the War on Drugs helps to decide who occupies positions of political power.  If black people are disenfranchised disproportionately, then white people are enfranchised disproportionately.  This occurs in two ways: one, during the War on Drugs,  white people comprise a greater share of the electorate than they would otherwise. And two, our nation’s politics are  deeply racially polarized such that altering the racial composition of an electorate tends to change the outcome of elections.

Ultimately, in disproportionately disenfranchising black voters, the War on Drugs amplifies the power of white voters, increasing the likelihood that they will be able to elect politicians sympathetic to their interests.  With this, the War on Drugs serves the interests of white supremacy.

3 thoughts

  1. Thanks for this, Katie. I also think we’ve got to start to face the injustice inherent in the electoral college system itself: it was created for the purpose of over-enfranchising white slave-owning voters, and continues to over-enfranchise white voters by affording small rural disproportionately-white states a disproportionately high number of electoral votes.

    1. excellent point, Bridget. I similarly wonder why states like Iowa and New Hampshire, states that are very very white, have such clout and influence in the presidential primaries…

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