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Even in the 2008 general election, which had widely-touted voter turnout, a number of eligible people did not vote. Michael McDonald engaged in a complex study, which not only looked at people in the population who were age-eligible for voting, but also looked at the number of people who were not otherwise disenfranchised, such as felons or foreign nationals. He found an overall turnout rate of truly eligible people of 61.7%, which means that almost 40% of people who were eligible to vote in the 2008 election, failed to do so (McDonald, 2009). McDonald also found an overall turnout rate of 56.8% of all age-eligible people, which would mean that only slightly more than half of all age-eligible people voted in the 2008 election (McDonald, 2009).
Black Turnout vs. White Turnout
Traditionally, there has been a lower turnout among black voters than white voters, a fact that is particularly disconcerting, given that there is still a substantial amount of institutionalized racism, which might be best combated by having more African-Americans in office. African-American voter turnout was incredible for the 2008 presidential election, but those figures, while encouraging, do not reflect the normal trend of African-American voter turnout. Instead, that trend shows that black voter turnout generally hovers between 40% and 50% of age eligible voters for presidential elections, and between 20% and 30% for midterm elections (Marcelo et al., 2008). While white voter turnout is only marginally higher, with over 50% participation in the 2004 presidential election and about 43% in the 2000 presidential election, the fact that white voter turnout is lower, percentage-wise for local elections, may help highlight one of the issues with voter turnout (Marcelo et al., 2008). Their higher rates of participation in midterm elections demonstrate a commitment to the voting process in the African-American community, which makes one question why the African-American participation rates would be lower than white participation rates in presidential elections. This may be explained by factors that continue to prohibit full African-American participation in the electoral process
Voting Rights Now
While states no longer prohibit voters through poll taxes or literacy tests, it is a fallacy to assume that there is equality in voting. However, that is a fallacy. African-Americans are not eligible to vote in the same percentages as other Americans, a problem that is quickly expanding to Hispanics, as well. This is due to the fact that African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are overrepresented in the felon population. Even if one agrees that non-violent drug-related offenses, such as possession, should be treated as felonies, the reality is that African-American and Hispanic defendants are likely to be charged with higher degrees of crime and are more likely to be convicted than white defendants. In fact, most experts believe that the overrepresentation of African-American males in prison population is not due to greatly increased criminality in that group, but due to the fact that they are more likely to be zealously pursued in all aspects of the criminal justice process. This is a very important factor when one considers that one of the side-effects of a felony conviction is disenfranchisement, whether temporary or permanent.
There is no escaping the reality that felon disenfranchisement has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. There is also no escaping the reality that American prisons are full of drug-related offenders. If allowed to vote, many of these felons, like many non-criminal Americans, would probably vote to decriminalize drug-related behavior, and provide appropriate social services, such as drug treatment programs, for addicts. However, because of felon disenfranchisement, it is unlikely that these sweeping changes will ever occur. This means that the nations' laws do not reflect the wishes of everyone in the nation, but instead intentionally ignore the wishes of significant portions of the nation's population. The issue is especially problematic when one considers that there is no real reason to deny felons the right to vote. If the laws are just and desired by the majority of people, the proportion of convicted felons is sufficiently small to sway votes. However, if the laws are unjust or discriminatory and are opposed by a significant portion of the population, then the felon vote might be sufficient to change legislation.
One of the hallmarks of a free society is that all of its citizens have the right to vote. While this right was theoretically granted to African-American males following the conclusion of the Civil War with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the reality is that African-Americans were denied a meaningful right to vote until the latter-half of the twentieth century. Although the 15th Amendment prohibited denying citizens their right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude, race-based disenfranchisement quickly became the norm in Southern states (U.S. Const. amend. XV). This disenfranchisement was accomplished through intimidation, poll taxes, literacy requirements for voters, and other measures aimed at preventing African-Americans from voting. These actions were cloaked as racially neutral; for example, literacy requirements would require to both white and African-American citizens, but contained grandfather clauses that could only factually benefit white voters. Even when the Supreme Court began to find some of these voting laws unconstitutional, states could simply react by drafting new laws, with the same goal of keeping African-Americans disenfranchised. Some commentators believe that race-based disenfranchisement continues to occur, which is mostly accomplished through two methods: gerrymandering, and the legal disenfranchisement of convicted felons. Even if all Americans still do not have equal access to voting opportunities, there is a substantial equality that simply did not exist in the early part of the twentieth century. That change is largely due to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave Congress the means to prevent racially-biased voting requirements.
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