To diminish urban unrest, start by restoring voting rights
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In recent months, there have been a series of peaceful-turned-violent protests in large, urban areas. Many authors have covered the root causes and implications of these protests. While the spark in several of these protests has been the death of a black man during altercation with police, there is certainly tinder that existed well prior to the unrest. Ferguson, Mo.; Baltimore and now Cleveland have become synonymous with a wave of protest that seems to be sweeping the nation.


Most Americans believe firmly in the right to protest peacefully. That support drops dramatically when the protests turn to violence. In my view, if Americans are serious about preventing violent protest, there is a relatively simple preliminary solution: Restore and enhance the franchise. This simple solution will not solve the root causes of upheaval such as education disparity, racism, unemployment and poverty. President Obama, when asked about issues plaguing the people of Baltimore, replied that "If we think we're just going to send police in to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there, and if, as a nation, we don't ask what we can do to change these communities, to help uplift these communities and give these kids opportunity, then we're not going to solve this problem." While solving a host of complex, complicated, interrelated problems is difficult, allowing all voting-age Americans to vote may indirectly lead to improvements.

Clearly, there is historical precedent for allowing the disenfranchised to have a legitimate say in their government. The tool of the disenfranchised is the protest. This has been seen in the women's rights movement, in the civil rights movement, and is present again. Why? I suggest that is because of the purposeful, institutionalized disenfranchisement of large swaths of American citizens.

The removal of the basic right to vote comes from two major sources. First, most states exclude convicted felons from voting, at least for a time. Many states permanently remove felons from voting opportunities. Earlier this month, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) missed an opportunity to restore the franchise to felons upon release from prison when he vetoed a bill that would have allowed felons to vote prior to completing parole or probation. The Baltimore Sun reports that Communities United, a group that supported the earlier return of the right to vote, responded to the veto by saying "Governor Hogan has learned nothing from the uprising in Baltimore and what the city and state residents need. Freddie Gray's West Baltimore neighborhood has the highest rate of disenfranchisement in the state. Former felons need a voice and the ability to influence what happens in their communities and lives." I wholeheartedly agree.

Second, the recent move to require photo identification, according to many scholars and pundits, is indicative of conservative attempts to limit African-American voting.

The combination of disenfranchising tools leads to the insidious and perverse consequence that those without an electoral voice take their voices and anger to the streets. And when those protests turn violent, large segments of the American populace are shocked at the scenes in the street — and suggest more "conventional" approaches to political change.

Last year, in the wake of Ferguson unrest, Obama noted that "the majority of Americans think the criminal justice system doesn't treat people of all races equally. Think about that. That's not just blacks, not just Latinos or Asians or Native Americans saying things may not be unfair. That's most Americans. And that has a corrosive effect — not just on the black community; it has a corrosive effect on America."

Let's take a step toward ending the corrosion of our beloved nation and allow voting-age American citizens the right to vote. Restore the franchise to felons who have served their time. Stop limiting access to the ballot based on race or class. While only a baby step toward solving some major domestic issues facing the nation, improving access to the franchise may be a foundational step toward equality.

Gibson is an associate professor of political science at Westminster College in Missouri and a National Security Network (NSN) fellow. The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of NSN.