It was one of the great political "what ifs" of modern US history spawning impacts, many malign, that still shape our world. According to an April 2014 study from the Sentencing Project, a Washington NGO, the wafer-thin victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election - a seismic event determined by the US Supreme Court - might have gone the other way if disenfranchised felons had been able to vote.
The outcome was decided by 537 votes in Florida, the key swing state which has some of America's strictest rules on allowing ex-felons to vote.
"We can only speculate," says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "But on the day of that national election there were an estimated 600,000 ex-felons in Florida who were not able to participate in the vote. How many would have voted? How would they vote? We can only guess. But I think it's certainly quite possible a national election was decided based on disenfranchisement policies in that one state."
It was a near run thing that haunts presidential candidates as on the eve of the August 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act - following a year of charged racial clashes and growing anger about inequality - the old spectre of racism stalks the growing field for the 2016 national election.
The Sentencing Project report also concluded that disenfranchisement "likely affected the results of seven US Senate races from 1970 to 1998". It's no surprise Florida was the epicentre of the most disputed White House election result in the last century.
The Sunshine State, along with Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia, bans some ex-felons from voting for life. Their democratic rights can only be restored if the state governor grants clemency. This extraordinary state of affairs is a toxic legacy of the post-Civil War period when, explains Mauer, "some southern states very consciously tailored their disenfranchisement statutes to exclude" blacks.
They often did this by targeting offences believed to be commonly committed by blacks. So, South Carolina ruled black men who beat their wives lost the vote. But anyone convicted of killing his wife did not.
"While it's debatable whether felony disenfranchisement laws today are intended to reduce the political clout of communities of colour", argues the Sentencing Project, "this is their undeniable effect". The main instrument of exclusion from the voting rolls has been the 40-year war on drugs, in which young black males are disproportionately locked up.
Between 1960 and 1976 disenfranchisement rates dropped. Thereafter, as the drug war kicked in, this trend reversed with the prison population rising from 1.17 million in 1976 to 5.85 million in 2011 of whom 2.2 million were black [13 per cent of the US population]. While one in 40 citizens is disenfranchised nationwide, this rises to one in 13 for blacks. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia one in five blacks is disenfranchised.
The 2015 Human Rights Watch world report said blacks made up 31 per cent of all US drugs arrests, plus 41 per cent of state and 42 per cent of federal prisoners jailed for drug crimes. Even though black and white Americans "engage in drug offences at comparable rates", the former were "nearly four times more likely ... to be arrested for marijuana possession". Even being free does not guarantee the vote. Many of the disenfranchised have served their time but remain under supervision: parole or probation. Only Vermont and Maine have no restrictions and allow all felons to vote.
"The ripple effects on minority communities have been substantial," says Mauer. "It's gone well beyond any legitimate public safety concerns." But change is in the air. Last year, Attorney-General Eric Holder said it was "time to fundamentally rethink laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision".
Stigmatising ex-felons increased the likelihood they would reoffend, he said, citing a Florida study that found enfranchising felons reduced recidivism rates.
While much of America remains locked in the past on race, guns and suppressing minority voters - via gerrymandering, voter ID laws and disenfranchisement - grassroots anger over well publicised shootings of young black men by white police has stoked pressure for reform.
This year, President Barack Obama sat down with David Simon, creator of The Wire. The acclaimed TV series - eulogised by Obama as "one of the greatest pieces of art in the last couple of decades" - explores the drug war's corrosive impact in Baltimore, an old slave port, and is a primer for criminal justice reform, a second-term Obama priority. Much of the show was filmed in poor neighbourhoods where racial tensions exploded in April, when 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody.
Mass incarceration was "breaking the bank", said the President, with many offenders denied jobs even as the economy expands.
Last Monday, Obama commuted the federal sentences of 46 prisoners - 14 doing life terms - serving time on drug convictions, following 22 similar commutations in March. Many went down hard for crack cocaine, a scourge of poor black communities, in the 1980s and 1990s. Crack cocaine brought harsher terms than more expensive powder cocaine, favoured by middle-class users. On Tuesday, Obama made the case for reform to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People saying the US justice system "remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth" and that mass incarceration makes the US "worse off".
Once ex-felons had served their terms, said Obama, they should be able to vote. He also pressed home his case on Friday during the first visit by a sitting President to a US prison, the medium security facility at El Reno, Oklahoma. He has also called for the demilitarisation of police.
Obama has been careful to build bipartisan support for reform, in part, emphasising it will cut government spending. Meanwhile, sentencing reform is gaining traction in Congress - with several bills pending - and on the campaign trail. In an April speech Democratic favourite Hillary Clinton said the justice system was out of balance and that it was time to end mass incarceration. Republican Rand Paul has also taken up the challenge.
Perhaps they've heard rising anger at grassroots level, as activist groups such as Out4Justice, Communities United and BlackLivesMatter push for reform.
Focus on human rights as Obama heads to Africa
President Barack Obama's trip to Kenya and Ethiopia is drawing fresh criticism that the two countries are heavy-handed on human rights and basic democratic freedoms.
Obama will become the first sitting United States president to visit Kenya, his ancestral homeland, when he arrives today to attend a business summit and meetings with President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Obama will become the first US president to travel to Ethiopia when he lands there on Monday to confer with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and to address the African Union.
"While both countries face real security threats, we are concerned by the way in which each government has responded, often with abusive security measures and increased efforts to stifle civil society and the media," Human Rights Watch and other advocacy organisations and analysts said in a letter to Obama.
"Many of these initiatives undermine core human rights protections and the rule of law and are also counterproductive when it comes to reducing insecurity."
Obama, who left Washington yesterday, said one of the themes he will stress on the trip is that the economic growth that Africans seek depends on good governance, including free and fair elections; strong, democratic institutions; freedom of speech and the press; vibrant civic participation and respect for human rights.
"Some African nations have made impressive progress on these fronts," he said in an opinion piece published yesterday by The Root, a website with a largely African-American audience. "Others have not. My trip will be an opportunity to address these issues candidly, both publicly and privately in my meetings with leaders."
Meanwhile, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday said his country was confident it could defeat terrorism - but he also charged that the US had "aided and abetted" the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, citing the role played by a US human rights law. His comments came on the same day bomb blasts by Boko Haram killed 29 people in Nigeria and 24 in Cameroon, according to officials.
Buhari, making his first trip to the US since being elected in March, blamed what is often called the "Leahy law". This law originally focused on US assistance to Colombia's armed forces but has gradually been expanded to prohibit US taxpayer funds from being given to any foreign military units that have been involved in gross human rights violations.
Buhari told an audience at the US Institute of Peace that the "blanket application of the Leahy law by the United States on the grounds of unproven allegations of human rights violations levelled against our forces has denied us access to appropriate strategic weapons to prosecute the war against the insurgents."
"Unwittingly and, I dare say, unintentionally the application of the Leahy law ... has aided and abetted the Boko Haram terrorists in the prosecution of its extremist ideology and hate, the indiscriminate killings and maiming of civilians, the raping of women and girls and other heinous crimes," he added. "I know the American people cannot support any group engaged in these crimes."
Nigeria's military has been accused of human rights violations on several occasions. Earlier this year, an Amnesty International report said Nigerian troops had caused the deaths of more than 8000 civilians since 2009.
It is also true that concerns about human rights abuses by the Nigerian military have complicated US involvement in the fight against Boko Haram. Last year, the US blocked a sale of attack helicopters from Israel to Nigeria.
However, Buhari's comments appeared to misinterpret the Leahy law. Lora Lumpe, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundation, explained that the law can prohibit funding only from the US Treasury, and, as such, the sale of arms and technology is not included.
- NZ Herald, AP, Washington Post