Suppressing citizen voices: Law professor suggests voter suppression is back

Ian Morse

U.S. citizens are being deprived of their voting rights due to their race and their criminal record, S. David Mitchell said in a talk he gave last Thursday.

“Universal suffrage is a myth,” Mitchell, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri, said. “The restriction of prohibiting felons of exercising the franchise is steep[ed] in our nation’s history…the pursuit of this universal suffrage is just that it’s a fairy tale: once upon a time.”

Mitchell, who holds a J.D. and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that suffrage for all U.S. citizens has made critical headway. Mitchell cited the favorable growth of suffrage in the U.S. from restrictions based on socio-economic class to gender and race to its status today.

However, Mitchell said that felon disenfranchisement effecting poor, racial, and other vulnerable communities is just voter suppression “in a different guise,” and voter ID laws are a “new chapter.” These laws, Mitchell said, are discriminatory not in their intent, but rather in their outcomes.

Mitchell defined voter suppression as any behavior intending to deter eligible voters from voting. Tactics towards disenfranchisement, he said, include intimidation, direct threats, and disruption.

In most jurisdictions in the U.S., a felony is a crime with a jail sentence of over one year. Felons may lose their right to vote, to be in a jury, to maintain their parental status, and to receive public housing and occupational licensing. All over the nation, there are 5.3 million disenfranchised citizens due to their felon status, four million of which are free, tax paying, and employed.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow voters to vote regardless if they are currently incarcerated for a felony, previously incarcerated, or on parole or probation. All other 48 states ban felons from voting at some time during their sentencing.

Mitchell sees voting as a fundamental right and therefore one that should not be withheld from any citizen. He cited the recent example of Michael Dunn, who was convicted of third-degree attempted murder. In Mitchell’s eyes, despite his heinous crime, Dunn deserved the right to vote, even while serving time.

When asked why Dunn should be allowed to vote regardless of his conviction, Mitchell said Dunn’s crime “is not rationally related to the disability we are placing upon him.” However, in Mitchell’s eyes, those convicted of tax fraud should be stripped of voting rights.

Since 2000 in Pennsylvania, there were only 23 cases of voter fraud. To Mitchell, this discredits any argument for increased voting regulations and restrictions.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s comments provoked many questions and opinions from the Lafayette audience. The Q&A session lasted as long as the law professor’s 45-minute talk.

“I thought his [overreaching] notion that citizenship in the United States is defined largely by one’s ability to vote was a really important idea for our population to hear about and consider,” Dean of Intercultural Development John McKnight said in an email. McKnight also said that Mitchell made the topic “very accessible” to Lafayette.

Alexandria Castaldo ‘14 and Jocelyn Bookman ‘14 pointed out the importance to have such talks on campuses with privileged students.

“It is difficult for privileged students to understand the likelihood of offenders to recidivate when re-entry programs are lacking, not to mention basic rights such as voting and having a say in their communities,” Bookman said.

Desmond Miller ‘17 particularly enjoyed the talk, saying it was “informative” and provided an “interesting outlook” addressing whether punishments in our legal system fit the crime.

In response to a student’s question about the future, Mitchell expressed pessimism about any change towards felon voting laws.

“I think people are going to try and try and try again until they get it right,” he said.