Death wish

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid nearly lost a 1998 race he should have won easily.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid nearly lost a 1998 race he should have won easily.


In 1998, U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, a Democrat, squeaked through to reelection by just 401 votes after a recount. It was the only close race he ever had after being elected to Congress. There was no economic populist like Ralph Nader in the race for Democrats to blame for Reid’s close call, but there was another place to assign blame—the Democrats themselves.

According to voter disenfranchisement scholar Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota, 10,500 African Americans in Nevada could not vote because of felony convictions. That was a fourth of all the disenfranchisements in the state, though blacks made up only about eight percent of the populace. Most of them live in Clark County, where African American precincts tend to go 90 percent-plus Democratic. Had former inmates been able to vote, Reid’s cliffhanger would almost certainly have been a comfortable victory margin.

Remember the Florida recount? While it was going on, other cliffhangers got much less attention.

The Sentencing Project’s Mark Mauer said then a whopping 17.8 percent of black males in the “liberal” state of Minnesota were disenfranchised. In 2000, U.S. Representative David Minge of Minnesota, a Democrat, lost to Republican Mark Kennedy after a recount. The margin of defeat was 155 votes.

In Michigan, where 5.4 percent of black males are disenfranchised, a cliffhanger between Republican Mike Rogers and Democrat Dianne Byrum for the House seat vacated by Senator-elect Debbie Stabenow ended in Rogers’ favor by 160 votes.

The figures on the consequences of the war on drugs never fail to astonish, but the idea that those figures have grown so huge as to determine the outcome of U.S. elections is an unfamiliar one. In 2000, it cost the Democrats the presidency of the United States. In Florida, the national capital of felony disenfranchisement, a startling 31 percent of the state’s African Americans could not vote that year because they had been disenfranchised by felony convictions, particularly drug convictions. The Sentencing Project put their number at 200,000. Those 200,000 people would probably have been an almost monolithic Democratic vote, enough to have turned the Florida near-tie into a Gore landslide. The Democrats had long since begun losing elections not by the margin of Ralph Nader’s vote but by the margin of blacks the Democrats have helped disenfranchise.

Democratic voter suppression

That races like these are being decided in favor of Republicans is something for which Democratic leaders can blame themselves. In the course of the various crime and drug hysterias to which Congress has subjected itself over the last three decades, congressional Democrats have been willing collaborators.

The (possibly drug-related) death of Celtics draft choice Len Bias in June 1986 is a good example. It set off near-madness on Capitol Hill. Congress quickly enacted 26 new mandatory minimum sentences without bothering to find out whether a punitive approach would make the problem worse, whether the minimums would help or hurt the battle against drug use or what the consequences would be.

Far from being a voice of restraint, Democrats—led by House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (whose party then had a comfortable majority in the House)—were just as incendiary as GOP members. Legislative leaders are supposed to be temperate and restrained, but in this case the fuse melted in the political heat. According to drug war historian Dan Baum, O’Neill called a meeting of crime-related committee chairs within hours of Bias’ death and laid down the law—the Democrats would be bigger and tougher and take the drug issue away from the Reagan White House. A punitive O’Neill-supported “bipartisan” measure would eventually pass the House, 392 to 16.

It was just one in a long line of measures with which Democrats made war on their most reliable supporters. When the first President George Bush set off a national hysteria about drugs with an inflammatory nationally televised speech in September 1989, Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, ranking Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, accused Bush of not being “tough enough, bold enough or imaginative enough.”

Biden, in fact, was perhaps the most rabid Democratic drug warrior. He exemplified the way Democrats short circuited real legislative debate, doing the Republicans’ work for them by failing to offer any competing view of the drug problem and thus surrendering the policy initiative. A few months later, Biden stepped up his rhetorical line, saying “one of my objectives, quite frankly, is to lock Willie Horton up in jail.” Then, when Congress was debating the 1994 crime bill, with its billions for new prisons and more billions for local police hires, Democrats were enthusiastic even while acknowledging the futility of the legislation. “We are going to show everybody how tough we are,” said Biden. “But I want to advertise, as the author of the underlying bill, as author of the death penalty amendment, they are not going to have much effect.”

So it has gone time and again for decades, with African Americans bearing the brunt of the intermittent anti-crime and anti-drug convulsions. There was the passage of the famous 1988 sentencing disparity between forms of cocaine, enacted with bipartisan support. Penalties became harsher for crack cocaine (used mostly by blacks) than for powder cocaine (used mostly by whites), though the two forms are biochemically identical. Of the then-members of the Nevada delegation, only Reid—who voted for it—is still serving.

In addition, cases against blacks tend to reach court resolutions more frequently than those against whites, which are more often diverted into plea bargains or treatment.

There is no evidence that any Democratic leaders considered the eventual political effect of the policies they were setting in motion any more than they considered the criminal justice effects. Surely no one foresaw that the numbers would grow so mammoth that elections—including a presidential election—would be thrown to the GOP as a result.

In 2012, the late California state legislator Tom Hayden told us, “Politicians think they have to be ’tough on crime’ to get elected and, except for a few progressive states, they are right politically but, of course, wrong on ethical grounds.”

But drug addiction is not a crime. It’s a health problem.

Drug prohibition is a relatively new thing. The first U.S. drug prohibition laws were enacted in Virginia City, Nevada, and San Francisco, California, in the 1870s and dealt with opium. When they failed to accomplish much, broader prohibition was enacted by state legislatures. But still, anti-drug laws remained local, were not federal until the 20th century, and were little enforced. Even after national anti-drug laws were put on the books, enforcement was low key. Not until the presidential administrations of Lyndon Johnson—who won creation of the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs—and Richard Nixon—who used the term “War on Drugs” and convinced Congress to create the Drug Enforcement Administration—was enforcement ratcheted up to military-style campaigns.

Chris Giunchigliani, left, is one of the few Democratic leaders who has paid attention to the problems caused by the drug war.


And when it was, drug use started to climb rapidly. It wasn’t the first time the nation had evidence that prohibition caused substance abuse, but it still is an unlearned lesson. In 1972, Consumer Reports published a table. It showed that the number of heroin deaths in the U.S. stayed under 200 a year during the 20th century—until the 1960s, when prohibition enforcement was accelerated. By 1971, they shot up to more than 1,200. Prohibition is the drug dealer’s best friend. The lure of the forbidden kicks in, and drug use shoots up out of sight.

Consumer Reports, in a 623-page report, Licit and Illicit Drugs, also provided fascinating information about youthful 1950s-1960s sniffing of household products—gasoline, solvents, lighter fluid, varnish. There was a crackdown on only one such product—model airplane glue. Guess which one then saw the widest subsequent illegal use? Prohibition causes substance abuse.

Locking up the Democratic base

By 1986, African Americans—the most faithful Democratic voters—became a majority of the U.S. prison population for the first time in the history of the nation. By 1988, one in four black men in the United States was in prison, in jail, on parole, or on probation. Between 1985 and 1995, drug convictions against African Americans grew by 707 percent compared to 306 percent against whites. The week the Florida recount began, Newsweek reported two thirds of those sent to prison for drug abuse are black, “though white drug users outnumber them five to one.”

Huge numbers of households are headed by women alone. In African American families, the toll is particularly high. The bipartisan crime policies are wrecking the African American family unit in the United States, although conservatives who glorify the family unit as the backbone of society do little about the problem. In Nevada, 14.8 percent of households headed by women are African American, well above their percentage of the population.

Just as alcohol prohibition bred contempt for law, these crime policies today breed contempt in the black community for criminal justice—African American jurors who are reluctant to convict, young blacks who no longer consider a felony conviction a stigma. But if these societal effects have not gotten the attention of Democrats, perhaps the electoral impact will. Since the numbers are growing so great, Democrats are going to have more and more difficulty winning elections without their staunchest supporters. Each election sees fewer blacks able to vote. Because many jurisdictions strip convicted felons of the right to vote, today 13 percent of the adult African American male population cannot vote.

According to the Sentencing Project, there are nine states that have lifetime bans on ex-felons voting. Nevada is one of them. There are 12 states that deny voting rights at all stages of the criminal justice process—“to some or all of the individuals who have successfully fulfilled their prison, parole, or probation sentences.” Nevada is one of them.

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who as a state legislator worked to restore voting rights, said last week, “African American males are targeted for arrest more often than white drug dealers and wind up in prison with no services. It destabilizes families and neighborhoods disproportionately. Disenfranchisement is just plain wrong and needs to be fixed.”

It is striking, given its impact on women who end up as heads of households, that few women leaders or women’s organizations have taken a role in doing something about the War on Drugs. The Nevada Women’s Lobby does not list it as one of its priorities. “No, of course it’s a women’s issue, because our ways of looking at drug issues have been so racially influenced,” Gloria Steinem told us last month.

The tide on alcohol prohibition did not turn until women led the battle for repeal. They were motivated by the damage done to families by prohibition.

In 2000, George Bush carried Florida’s Duval County, a predominantly black county. Twenty thousand ballots were not counted because of double votes in the presidential race, but even then, the Democratic base in the county would likely have withstood that setback if it had not been for felony disenfranchisements. And the damage to Democrats is all up and down the ballot. Citizens have been using initiative petitions to go around their “leaders” to try to bring some sense to politicized criminal justice policies. In 1996 and again in 1998, Arizona voters jerked authority for drug abuse away from law enforcement and gave it back to the medical community. All over the country voters are changing their laws on marijuana.

But the pace of these efforts is very slow, and the consequences of senseless, emotion-driven criminal justice laws will continue to pile up the felony disenfranchisements. By 2004, after four more years of disenfranchisements, John Kerry did not even achieve the tie Gore obtained in Florida. It is reaching the point that Democrats often win only when Republicans screw up (the nomination of Donald Trump comes to mind). Narrow losses by Democrats are chronic.

In Colorado in 2002, Republican Bob Beauprez won a U.S. House seat by 122 votes over Democrat Mike Feeley following a recount.

In 2004, Democratic incumbent Baron Hill lost to Republican challenger Mike Sodrel by 1,485 votes in an Indiana U.S. House district.

In 2006, Republican Deborah Pryce won a U.S. House seat over Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio by 1,054 votes.

In 2010, Texas Democrat Solomon Ortiz lost reelection to the House to Republican Blake Farenthold by 775 votes.

In 2014, following a recount, Republican Martha McSally won a U.S. House seat over Democratic incumbent Ron Barber by 167 votes.

These barely scrape the surface.

After his 1998 close call, Senator Reid did little to try to roll back the War on Drugs. He did a cameo as himself in a scene in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film Traffic, chatting with other U.S. senators and the White House drug “czar” (played by Michael Douglas). Reid’s line in the script: “Education and rehabilitation, prevention—that’s not significant to these reporters. They want to see people in prison. They want to see the gory aspects of the drug problem.” It was an enlightened comment, but nothing in Reid’s legislative record has disrupted the scenario his comment described. Instead, he introduced a measure (S. 2666) to federalize felony enfranchisement matters. It failed to pass.

Back in Reid’s home state, voters approved medical marijuana and 40 percent voted in favor of making marijuana legal outright. In response, the Nevada Legislature decriminalized marijuana but rejected a bill sponsored by Giunchigliani to reenfranchise former felons. Republicans—the champions of voter suppression—were in no hurry to let the Democrats out from under their own voter suppression program. In 2011, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed Assembly Bill 301, a measure that would have provided for restoration of civil rights for ex-felons

There may be a certain macabre satisfaction in seeing Democrats reap the fruit of their own cravenness. But that satisfaction is surely tempered by knowing they did it on the backs of their most loyal supporters, citizens who deserve better.