Socialist firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) on Wednesday called felon disenfranchisement, a legal practice embraced in some form by 48 states, part of "the inherited structures of slavery."
During an Instagram Live stream, the congresswoman responded to a submitted question about how someone could be involved in electing Democratic politicians if he or she is ineligible to vote. There are, Ocasio-Cortez said, "plenty of reasons why a person may not be eligible."
"Maybe you're not of voting age yet, maybe you aren't a U.S. citizen. Maybe you live in a state that upholds the structures, the inherited structures of slavery, and disenfranchises people who have been trapped in our system of mass incarceration either now or in the past."
Ocasio-Cortez's claim follows the views of fellow progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), who endorsed permitting the Boston Marathon bomber to vote during the senator's 2020 primary run. But the link to slavery—part of a broader progressive narrative tying the criminal justice system to historical racism—runs afoul of facts about disenfranchisement's current status and its historical use.
Just two states, Maine and Vermont, permit felons to vote even when in prison, according to the nonpartisan National Center for State Legislatures. Twenty-one states deprive felons of their voting rights through the period of their parole, including northern states such as New York and Wisconsin. A further 11 deny felons voting rights indefinitely, including pre-Civil War free states Iowa and Nebraska, as well as Arizona and Wyoming, which were both incorporated after the war.
The widespread use of felon disenfranchisement today reflects its prevalence throughout American history, in all regions of the country. As Heritage Foundation scholars Hans A. von Spakovsky and Roger Clegg note, the right of states to deprive criminals of voting rights stretches back to Greece and Rome, and is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment—perhaps the defining legislation of post-Civil War Reconstruction.
While some southern states did implement felon disenfranchisement to target black would-be voters, von Spakovsky and Clegg write, the practice was far more widespread: By 1900, "over 80 percent of the states in the [U]nited States (which was increasing in size as western territories became states) already had felon disenfranchisement laws."
Ocasio-Cortez's support for felon enfranchisement may come down to bare partisan interest—one widely cited 2002 study suggests that felons would have handed the White House and Senate to Democrats if permitted to vote in 2000. But that finding is far from certain; a more recent study found that felon turnout is rarely high enough to swing elections.