CI: Criminalizing Voters, Criminalizing Us

March 07, 2012 at 7:01 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: 2012 Election, Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Immigration, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights, Voting Rights, White Privilege

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.

Criminalizing Voters, Criminalizing Us
by nancy a heitzeg

In the year 2012, Criminal InJustice is focused on the Vote of Our Lives — efforts to get it out, get it counted, and certainly efforts to resist both the overt and covert attempts to suppress voter turnout.

A consistent theme throughout all these CI pieces is the role of criminalizing narratives in appealing to public fears through racialized imagery. Most of these narratives are directed towards Criminalizing President Obama. But these themes, of course. are used to criminalize his supporters as well, and contribute to on-going efforts to suppress voters on the left.

Voter ID Legislation

Late last month, all these themes collided in a not-so-perfect storm in Minnesota. The Minnesota Majority — drawing on sadly familiar Dead Breitbart lies about ACORN — exhibited this banner on a companion site devoted to pushing a yes vote on a Minnesota Voter ID Ballot measure. (Promoted by the Republican – dominated MN legislature, this ballot measure is an attempt to force Voter ID requirements after Governor Mark Dayton vetoed similar legislation last term. It would make Minnesota the eighth state to pass Voter ID legislation since the 2010 midterms. Currently, 20 states have some sort of Voter Id Requirement.)

TakeAction Minnesota! demanded the removal of the images — decrying them as racial profiling of voters at its ugliest, designed to drive fear and racial division throughout Minnesota — and demanded an apology.Their concerns were echoed by the Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP:

“The Minnesota Majority advertisement plays into racial stereotypes that have no place in public debate,” he said in the statement. “It reveals how weakly this group believes their own claims that they are trying to battle voter fraud. They know that the myth of voter fraud is nothing but a fraud itself, so they resort to fear and bigotry to make their case.”

Minnesota Majority’s response was an updated banner and claims that opposition was “playing the race card.” The new and unimproved banner is below.

The switch from a costumed Mexican to a Canadian party girl and the replacement of one Black prisoner with a cartooned white counter-part changes nothing. The message in both cases is clear — the ballot must be protected from “thugs”, “illegals”, “socialist sluts” (or is that a student??), mythical men in tights and zombies.

The themes that Kay Whitlock outlined in Criminalizing President Obama are all evident here –

  • President Obama as a welfare queen/thief/lazy black person
  • President Obama as a rapist/thug/violator of men, women, children, and the entire nation
  • President Obama as a deceptive, dishonest, secretive, untrustworthy “sleeper cell” Kenyan/Muslim, bent on the destruction of this country.

Just as President Obama is framed by the right as a “criminal” – a welfare- chiseling free-rider, an “alien”, a “thug”, a fraud, an “Other”, so too are those who vote for him.

We are all criminalized now.

The Myth of Voter Fraud v. Real Voter Disenfranchisement

Voter fraud is a myth – one exposed repeatedly even unwittingly by GOP lawyers enlisted to document the same. Voter fraud is, at most, an isolated event, certainly not the massive electoral scam proponents of voting restrictions portray.

Ironically, the very voters vilified on the Minnesota Majority website and elsewhere are the very voters most likely to be disenfranchised by Voter ID and other regulations. More than 21 million citizens — 11 percent of the population — do not have government ID cards. Many of them are poor, or elderly, or black and Hispanic and the requirement to get a state issued ID, just for the purposes of voting, represents an undue burden in time and money. Others are students or military personnel who rely in other forms of photo identification rather than specific state issued IDs.

In a further irony, The Minnesota Majority website banner would have you believe that “convicts” (please note that they are two of the six “fraudulent” voters) are the biggest threat to the franchise of all. In fact, those convicted of felonies, even though they may be on probation rather than in prison, are amongst the most consistently disenfranchised of all. According to The Sentencing Project:

  • 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense.Only two states – Maine and Vermont – permit inmates to vote.
  • 35 states prohibit persons on parole from voting and 30 of these states exclude persons on probation as well.
  • Four states deny the right to vote to all persons with felony convictions, even after they have completed their sentences. Eight others disenfranchise certain categories of ex-offenders and/or permit application for restoration of rights for specified offenses after a waiting period (e.g., five years in Delaware and Wyoming, and two years in Nebraska).
  • Each state has developed its own process of restoring voting rights to ex-offenders but most of these restoration processes are so cumbersome that few ex-offenders are able to take advantage of them.

While felony disenfranchisement laws have been used in the USA since the colonial era, there is no denying that they have been primarily used to disenfranchise Black voters both post-Reconstruction and in the current context of mass incarceration aka “The New Jim Crow”. Again, from The Sentencing Project:

  • An estimated 5.4 million Americans, or one in forty adults, have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction.
  • 1.4 million African American men, or 13% of black men, are disenfranchised, a rate seven times the national average.
  • An estimated 676,730 women are currently ineligible to vote as a result of a felony conviction.
  • Given current rates of incarceration, three in ten of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40% of black men may permanently lose their right to vote
  • 2.1 million disenfranchised persons are ex-offenders who have completed their sentences.

This legislation also impacts the outcome of elections. Since African Americans tend to vote overwhelming Democratic, it is the Republican Party that has directly benefited from the racist dimensions of felony disenfranchisement. Escalating rates of felony disenfranchisement and the over-representation by race has already and will continue to impact the outcome of both national and state-level elections. As many as seven Senate races have been affected between 1970 and 1998; in each case the Democrat would have won had disenfranchised felons been allowed to vote. Researchers also estimate that in the 2000 Presidential election Al Gore would have picked up an additional 60,000 votes from disenfranchised felons in the state of Florida, more than enough to overcome the 537 vote margin for Bush when the recount was halted.

Taking Action Against The Real Voter Fraud

The real voter fraud is the on-going right-wing attempt to deny tens of millions of Americans their right to vote. The real crime is the blatant subversion of the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The real theft is that of the franchise from all of us.

The real assault is on Democracy itself.

It’s been more than a century since we’ve seen such a tidal wave of assaults on the right to vote. Historically, when voting rights are attacked, it’s done to facilitate attacks on other rights. It is no mistake that the groups who are behind this are simultaneously attacking very basic women’s rights, environmental protections, labor rights, and educational access for working people and minorities…

This assault — which is comprehensive in its reach and was launched in time to affect the 2012 elections — threatens to undermine the record levels of political participation witnessed during the historic 2008 Presidential Election, by blocking access to people of color, the poor, the elderly and the young..

Don’t let them get away with it.

Again, here are some preliminary actions you can take:

See also:
The Year of the Vote
Criminalizing President Obama
We Demand the Right to Vote
Why The Voting Rights Act is Still Necessary Today

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

was that a ghost standing in line or was it a klansman?


This reminds me of when Gandhi was talking about democracy.  He seems to enjoy the thought of democracy because it is about the people but it is ironic in the sense that in such a democratic nations, we tend to focus on ourselves instead of others.  I wonder how our country would be like if we were to be more like what Gandhi was talking about when he said that being democratic means sacrificing the self for the "others".


Of course once again this is an effort to separate people of color from whites, or low class to high class. Seems to have no rational behind it besides the fact that criminalizing specific groups of people will keep them out of the vote, giving those high class white men a greater chance for victory. We want to separate those who challenge the ideas of the government instead of acknowledging the issues of the system and fixing them. Great article again! 




I have heard the argument Voter ID many times.  The first time (2002), was when I heard my own mother claim the Senator Wellstone was attempting to bus hundreds of students into Minnesota to vote for him in the election.  These claims were spouted in the wake of his death and my mother was, sadly, not the only person who felt nothing at his loss. 

But, I have not heard the argument from anyone who was able to calmly and rationally explain why it was a good idea.  Instead, I have heard petty bickering, name calling and disgustingly BLATENT derogatory racial slurs.  Although they have tried to be less obvious, now that they have switched the picture, the intent to negate the rights of well deserving Americans to vote is still very vivid.


It is deplorable that people of color and the poor are disproportionately targeted and sucked into the prison industrial complex, and even if they are spit back out for a few minutes, they are not considered citizens with a political voice. I think of all people those who have been unjustly targeted due to their color should have the right to use their voice against this right-wing white dominated attack on their rights.


Unfortunately, I think that for many people, the only reason not to vote yes to the VoterID legislation is due to the fact that even people who are valued moreso than people of color and the poor will be impacted. Gasp! White, middle class students whose parents can afford to send them out of state may not be able to vote. And oh, i don't know, we really shouldn't impede military personell from voting, that would be awful. And the elderly? It would be too bad if this prevented them from voting. But what about the millions of Americans who are disenfranchised through the prison industrial complex? They are who we're most afraid of, right?


So it's going to come down to: does our fear of ex-cons voting outweigh our fear of valuable citizens voting?


Thank you for this article, Nancy. It's been wonderful reading this blog the past few weeks.


We are talking about this same issue in my Social Policy for Social Change class right now and it affects so many people. First of all I am a student and I know every time I move I don't update my driver's license or I.D. to match the address because I move so often. it also affects the elderly who may be unable to get an updated I.D. due to relocation to a nursing home or just because of lack of mobility. I agree with you Nancy something needs to be done about this so those who want to vote are able to regardless of the address on their I.D. or if they simply do not have a government issued I.D. card.


Superb, Nancy.  The criminalizing themes and narratives are at the heart of politics now - and our ability to expose, deconstruct, and subvert them may determine the course of the 2012 elections at all levels.


Other themes emergent:  criminalizing poverty; criminalizing union membership; criminalizing hunger. 


Thank you so much for this essay. 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

From The New Jim Crow :


"Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."


Also an excellent piece in this book in yesterday's NY Times



nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @Panyia Gandhi would be such a pleasant change of pace here :)


thanks panyia -- great comment

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @McKenzieDaul "We want to separate those who challenge the ideas of the government instead of acknowledging the issues of the system and fixing them."


this is exactly it


thanks McKennzie



nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @Miss_Schmitt So true


there are no rational arguments for this -- only irrational biases and fears.


And oh Paula Wellstone!!


miss him  every day -- May he Rest in Peace


 @pmlarsonmiller It is deplorable, pmlarsonmiller.  And, of course, it is not coincidental.  This nightmare won't end quickly or easily, but it will end - thanks to people like you who are helping to spread the word and expose this injustice for what it is. 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @pmlarsonmiller Amen!! to this -- "I think of all people those who have been unjustly targeted due to their color should have the right to use their voice against this right-wing white dominated attack on their rights


well all of it really - i fear you are right about the ulitmate concerns


and great to have you here! appreciate the contributions..


 @JaimieBeavers Well said, JamieBeavers.  Your personal take on this as a student is helpful and illuminating. 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @JaimieBeavers hey Jamie -- so glad to hear you are discussing this in classes


yes it is an unnecessary burden on so many people --  it is too easy for many of us to take for granted the question of state-issued ID and how access to them is really a privilege


 @nancy a heitzeg Nancy, that second link is to Michelle Alexander's book.  Can you please post the correct link to the piece in yesterday's NY Times?   Thanks.