Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Disenfranchised Americans a Troubling Puzzle for Democracy

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August 9, 2000

c. 2000 Newhouse News Servicce

LOS ANGELES – The 2000 Democratic National Convention here is being held in the 33rd Congressional District. It is the poorest, most Hispanic district in all of California. Democrats win in the 33rd without breaking a sweat.

And yet these densely packed precincts of L.A. and the teeming small cities to its southeast offer a troubling puzzle to the Democrats, and to democracy itself. When Bill Clinton and Al Gore swept the 33rd in 1992, they also collected fewer voters here than in any other district in California.

That seeming contradiction is possible because the 33rd also owns the distinction of having the fewest registered voters of any California district, and not entirely because the locals are not organized or interested. It is, rather, because so many of those living here are not citizens at all, but immigrants not yet eligible to vote.

Call California’s 33rd the can’t-vote capital of the United States, a not-so-shining symbol of a nation within a nation but outside its body politic, whose existence is rarely observed and whose meaning for representative government goes largely unconsidered. As America heads toward another, potentially close presidential election, nearly 20 million residents over the age of 18 simply cannot vote.

More than 14 million are the foreign-born who are not yet either eligible, interested or able to make it through the citizenship process. More than 80 percent of them are not white, more than half Hispanic.

And an estimated 4 million to 5 million Americans disproportionately black and brown have lost the vote because they have committed felonies.

If the can’t-vote nation could vote, the American electorate would be less white, and the fortunes of Democrats who tend to win minority voters by significant and sometimes overwhelming margins would be more secure than they are now. If places like the 33rd Congressional District produced votes at anything like normal rates, California would be a Democratic lock.

And, even though the felon and ex-felon population is much smaller, a new analysis by two sociologists from Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota concludes that, were it not for disenfranchised felons, the Democrats would still have control of the U.S. Senate, and if current felon disenfranchisement rates had existed in 1960, Richard Nixon would have defeated John F. Kennedy.

“If the Bush-Gore election turns out to be as close as the Kennedy-Nixon election, and Bush squeaks through, we may be able to attribute that to felon disenfranchisement,” said Jeff Manza, the Northwestern sociologist.

Manza and Minnesota collaborator Christopher Uggen concluded that, if disenfranchised felons voted in the way and at the rate of those who otherwise looked like them demographically and socioeconomically, about 30 percent would have turned out to vote in 1996, and 93 percent of them would have voted for Clinton.

Two years ago, The Sentencing Project, based in Washington, D.C., estimated that 3.9 million Americans, including 1.4 million black men, could not vote because of felony convictions. (Hispanics, whose rate of incarceration has doubled since 1980, are also a growing share of the disenfranchised.) But Manza and Uggen, using a more sophisticated method, estimate that close to 5 million are disenfranchised, and that the number is growing.

Growing also, through immigration, is the much larger population of those who cannot vote because they are not yet citizens.

According to an analysis of the 1999 Current Population Survey by Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, nearly 40 percent of Hispanics and Asian-Americans are not citizens, compared to 4 percent of blacks and 2 percent of whites. Altogether, there are 7.7 million voting-age Hispanics who are not citizens, and because the Hispanic community is much younger than the population at large, their voting strength is even more dramatically diminished.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, headquartered smack in the middle of the 33rd Congressional District in the city of Commerce, illustrates the point this way:

In 1996, out of every 100 Latinos, 36 were under 18 (compared to 26 in the general population), 25 were not citizens, 16 of the citizens were not registered, and 6 of the registered did not vote. That leaves 17 Latinos who voted, compared to 42 out of 100 non-Latinos.

With so many non-citizens concentrated together, it cannot help but have a distorting effect on democracy and representation, nowhere more apparently than at the most local level.

(By contrast, while the Asian-American population is slightly more heavily non-citizen than the Hispanic population, the political impact is less pronounced because the Asian community is smaller, more dispersed and less clearly identified with either party.)

One of the 33rd District’s largest and most commercially vibrant communities is the city of Huntington Park. But, according to Fernando Guerra, who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, while Huntington Park has an almost entirely Latino population of close to 120,000, there are only about 12,000 registered voters. In the last municipal election, the top vote-getter for city council, Rosario Marin, won with 1,295 votes.

“This is a city of 120,000,” said Guerra. “This is not good for democracy.”

It is better than it was a decade ago, when many of these communities still were run by whites. The neighboring city of Bell remains a throwback to that era 90 percent Hispanic, but with only one Hispanic on the five-member city council.

“Some of the people on the council are the same ones who were in office when I went to (Bell) high school,” said Araceli Gonzalez, 30, a councilwoman in neighboring Cudahy and a rare Republican, who thinks her party must and can win over Latinos. When Gonzalez was elected to the Cudahy council in 1997, she completed the Latinization of a board that she said was once elected by a much older white community that has largely disappeared.

It is not always whites, though, who represent the old guard.

Just beyond the 33rd, in Compton, a black minority holds tenaciously to power in a city now majority Latino. Both communities may vote Democratic in state and national elections, but there is no common interest in mobilizing folks to become citizens and voters. John Ortega, a local activist and attorney, knows that Hispanics will eventually wrest control of Compton. But he said, “I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime. I’m 65.”

In the city of Los Angeles itself, Latinos are now nearly half the population, but not even a fifth of the electorate. A Latino candidate remains a long shot to capture the mayoralty next year.

In the schools, said Guerra, “We have one-third of the children attending the L.A. Unified School District who have parents who cannot participate in the selection of the governing board.” Latinos comprise 68 percent of the students, but only one of seven school board members. Last year a Latina candidate lost by 532 votes.

And, as Woody Guthrie might have put it, the story is the same from California to the New York island.

Brentwood, in Suffolk County, Long Island, has New York’s largest Hispanic community outside the city. More than half the district’s 15,200 students are Hispanic, and nearly a fifth are black. But all seven school board members are white. Only about 1,600 people vote in the school board elections.

To Johnny Velez, who has organized a local Hispanic Democratic club, “it’s taxation without representation.”

“It’s common sense,” said Velez. “You pay taxes, you have kids in the school, you should be able to vote.”

That is, in fact, the way it works in New York City and Chicago. Before the last great wave of immigration, it was not unusual for states to allow non-citizens to vote in both state and federal elections. A proposal several years ago to allow non-citizens to vote in Los Angeles school elections went nowhere, and would require amending the state constitution.

Velez said he is contemplating suing Brentwood to allow non-citizens to vote in school elections. “It’s simple,” he said. “I want to see some Spanish representation.”

But Anthony Felicio, the Italian-American chairman of the Brentwood board of education to which he was first elected in the 1960s the administration building is named for him thinks that allowing non-citizens to vote would undermine the meaning of citizenship. “Our system has been working pretty well here,” said Felicio. “If they’re not citizens, the only thing they can’t do is vote. Their kids are educated just like anybody else.”

The representation gap found in Brentwood is now being replicated in small communities across the country that have suddenly become home to large numbers of Latin Americans who have come to work at poultry plants, slaughterhouses and factories.

In America’s carpet capital of Dalton, Ga., Hispanics now make up at least a third of the county population, but 2 percent of its registered voters. The first Latino to run for the Dalton school board received 15 percent of the vote.

But even where Latinos have achieved power, the large number of can’t-voters can distort the way power is distributed.

The congresswoman in California’s 33rd District is Lucille Roybal-Allard, whose father, Edward Roybal, a pioneer in Latino politics in Los Angeles, served in Congress for 30 years. Roybal-Allard won with 87 percent of the vote last time, but that was with only 43,310 votes. Across town, on L.A.’s Westside, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman received three times as many votes on his way to a slightly less impressive percentage of the vote.

What that means is that Roybal-Allard ultimately must answer to a much smaller group of people than Waxman, and that the few who vote in her district wield power in ways that undermine the meaning of one man, one vote.

Putting aside the question of how ably Royal-Allard, who now chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, represents her district, Peter Skerry, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College, said it is a situation that invites complacency.

“It’s one of those problems of our immigration policy that no one wants to really address,” said Skerry, author of “Mexican-Americans: The Ambivalent Minority.”

And any remedies are fraught with political overtones. When Clinton and Gore sought to accelerate the naturalization process in 1996, they were accused of corrupting the system for political gain.

The impact of felon disenfranchisement is uneven across the country, because the rules vary state by state. Maine, Massachusetts, Utah and Vermont do not disenfranchise felons at all (inmates in one Massachusetts prison formed a political action committee), while in Alabama, the only way a felon can regain the vote is to petition for a pardon. Nationally, 13 percent of black males are unable to vote because of felony convictions, but in Alabama and Florida, it is close to a third.

Most elections are not close enough for those lost votes to matter. But when Manza and Uggen re-examined close U.S. Senate elections since 1978, they concluded that the felon vote could have reversed Republican victories in Virginia, Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, Florida and Wyoming, and prevented the Republican takeover.

“If these people get out, they are probably Democratic voters, like myself,” said Tommy Waites, an ex-felon now doing a prison ministry out of a church in Montgomery, Ala. Waites successfully petitioned to win a pardon and will vote in his first presidential election this year.

Obtaining a pardon is arduous, said Jerome Gray, state field director for the Alabama Democratic Conference. Only about 200 are granted a year and most ex-felons don’t know about the process. “Most of them think they are in the penalty box forever,” said Gray.

Just recently, Recardo Cook registered to vote for the first time at the Jefferson County courthouse in Bessemer, Ala., clutching in his hand the pardon he received this spring. Cook served 15 years in prison for murder, some on death row, before the capital sentence was reversed. He has been out 10 years now and is pastor of a Baptist church in Bessemer.

A couple of years ago he decided he ought to practice what he preached to his parishioners about voting, and began to petition for his pardon.

He thinks if more ex-felons voted, some of the politicians “who speak so harshly” on issues of criminal justice might tone it down.

Cook said he hasn’t decided whom he will vote for this fall, but plans to study the candidates and the issues and, when the time comes, “I’ll just make my choice of the lesser of the evils.”

Meanwhile, Gray and other Democrats are working to change the law to automatically restore the right to vote once a felon has served his time and paid his fine.

If that happened, Gray said, it could change Alabama politics.

“In 1998, we had several statewide races in the general election where Democratic candidates we were supporting lost by less than 10,000 votes,” he said. “In Alabama, we have 105,000 black men who are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions. If I had just 20,000 of them, that could have turned those elections around, to say nothing about close races in legislative districts and for county schoo


Written by jonathantilove

June 28, 2012 at 6:17 am

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