Expert on Voting Rights to Speak at Smith
Published: Thursday, September 25, 2008
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 17:05
The election is coming and with it demands to get out to vote. But for more than five million people it is not just a busy schedule that keeps them from the polls - a confusing patchwork of state laws bars people with felony convictions from voting. Who can vote is even more important in an election like this one, where McCain and Obama are so close in the polls. In 48 states, people in prison are not allowed to vote, and most states bar even those individuals on parole or probation from voting. In nine states some people are barred from voting for life because they were convicted of a felony in the past. Some of these people were disenfranchised decades ago for offenses committed while they were teenagers, and for which they served no time in jail.
Peter Wagner, a nationally known expert on voting and criminal justice issues, will address these issues at Smith College on Tuesday, Sept. 30.
"At his January term Constitutional Law Though Film course, Peter Wagner led an eye-opening discussion about how, after the Civil War, the southern states used literacy tests, poll taxes and felon disenfranchisement laws to deliberately keep freed slaves from voting," said Leah Sakala '11, a student in Wagner's course. "These laws pretended to be racially neutral, but their intent was to get around the 15th Amendment's prohibition against using race to deny people the right to vote."
Wagner will trace the history of felon disenfranchisement from ancient Roman Times through the racialized politics of the Post-Civil War era, and demonstrate how these politics continue to shape our elections today.
Felon disenfranchisement can change elections. The close 2000 presidential election was decided by a few hundred votes in Florida, but that state disenfranchises more than a million people with criminal convictions for life.
In 2004, Wagner authored a report called "Jim Crow in Massachusetts? Prisoner Disenfranchisement," which found that the decision in 2000 to bar people in prison from voting denies the vote to 3 percent of Black men in the state, a rate more than six times higher than for white men.
"Seeing as it is election time, we want to bring a speaker to campus who can talk about the people who are excluded from our democratic process to add to the already rich dialogue going on about the elections as a whole," said Olivia Cummings '09 of Students for Social Justice and Institutional Change (SSJIC)
The talk will be a brown bag event in the Campus Center Room 205 at 12 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 30. The event will be hosted by SSJIC, SACA and the Smith Democrats