Sophomore Speech: Equal Voices

Photo by Sam Lee

Equal Voices
Ilan Rotberg
Sophomore Speech Finalist

As the annual sophomore speech finals have come to a close, Denebola got the opportunity to obtain each finalist’s transcription and recording of their speech. Sophomore Ilan Rotberg’s speech entitled Equal Voices, enabled him to receive a spot in this year’s finals. Read Rotberg’s speech below:

Democracy. Equality. Justice. Liberty. These are the values that every American holds dear in their hearts. We even say that we live in the land of the free. This country prides itself as being the beacon of democracy, having some of the world’s freest and fairest elections. Yet, for the past few elections, there has been a common trend that the office of President of the United States of America, the leader of the free world, come down to very few states, and very few votes.

Yet, how would you feel if someone told you that an enormous block of the American populous wasn’t able to vote at all?

Ever since 1776, the Founding Fathers envisioned an America that provides the utmost liberty to all of its citizens.

Up until 1964, the state of voting laws in the US was unclear; therefore, activists for many generations fought for the right of every American adult to have the right to vote no matter their gender, sexuality, or race.

Lawmakers soon became tired of fighting the same battle repeatedly, which is why our Fourteenth Amendment contains the “Equal Protection Clause” stating that:

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

This clause protects the rights of all Americans to reserve the right to vote, as well as many other rights. While this has put to rest the debate over whether minorities or women should be allowed to vote, there is certainly more work to be done.

Currently, voting laws in many states are preventing convicted felons from voting. The Sentencing Project, a national non-profit criminal justice-oriented organization conducted a study and found that as of 2016, nearly 6 million American citizens are disallowed from voting due to “felony disenfranchisement” laws (Chung).

In 12 US states, convicted felons do not have the right to vote even after prison, parole, and probation. In other words, these states completely remove a former felon’s voting rights for the rest of their life (Chung).

The very existence of these laws are a betrayal of American principles of liberty and equality.

Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review writes:

“Policies that systematically disenfranchise such a large voting bloc are fundamentally at odds with the values of democracy and equal protection espoused by politicians and academics.” (Cielinski)

This issue is not even discretely unconstitutional! It’s not as though according to some random phrase in a random spot in the constitution, there is a tiny contradiction.

No. Not even close.

Disenfranchising anyone blatantly contradicts the arguably most important passage in the entirety of US founding documents!

Disenfranchisement of felons also has vast racial implications. The Sentencing Project study furthers that of the nearly 6 million disenfranchised felons in the US, racial disparities are evident.

When looking at white adults, roughly 2 percent of whites are disenfranchised. That’s one in every 53 people (Chung).

Now, when we look at solely the African-Americans population, these disenfranchised adults make up about 8 percent of black adults. That’s one in every 13 (Chung)!

Let me say that again. One in every 13 black adults.

Let’s do some math. Of the 6 million disenfranchised voters, 2.2 million of them are people of color (Chung). That’s more than one third of the whole disenfranchised population whereas only 13% of the full US population are people of color (US Census Bureau).

Disenfranchising voters has disproportionately kept black people away from the ballot box. Although not the exact same, the net result of felony disenfranchisement has tremendous resemblance to the spirit of Jim Crow.

A 2003 study by researchers at Northwestern University has some insight to origins of disenfranchisement laws. The study notes that the majority of felon voting bans were passed in the 1860’s and 1870’s, when many people were still questioning the rights of African-Americans to vote (Manza).

In other words, the implementation of these laws were a long term commitment to keeping African-Americans out of the ballot box, and these bans were only subsequently strengthened as the Jim Crow era began to take hold. Sadly, the results of this racist effort remain pertinent.

However, it’s not as though this is a reflection of the American people.

According to a Harrison Poll in 2002, eighty percent of Americans think that ex-felons living in the community should reserve the right to vote (Opinion Polls/Surveys).

The argument against felony disenfranchisement, and in favor of enfranchisement, is only strengthened when we consider that not only are these voting laws unconstitutional but also extremely unpopular. It would make it impossible for politician or lobbyist to stand in favor of these laws when the American people overwhelmingly and across all political lines agree on the restoration of liberty and justice for all.

We like to say that we address major issues when we talk about politics. By debating the controversial issues of taxes, guns, and marriage we feel fulfilled. We feel fulfilled because we have opinions on controversial topics that we place so much importance, time, and effort into, but we never talk about this issue.

Think about the young boy who may have had no other choice but to sell drugs in inner city Miami because he needed to help his single mom sustain a family in a tough neighborhood. That young boy served his prison sentence, and finished being on parole and probation. He may very well be sixty years old, paying taxes, abiding by the law, and living a fulfilling life in the Floridian community. Yet, he is unable to vote. Is this justice?

I believe in America. I am proud to live in this country and in our history, we have accomplished a whole lot. So as we move further into the twenty first century, I am hopeful that justice will prevail.