Most scholars who study felon disenfranchisement trace its roots back to Reconstruction. Southern states drew up laws to disenfranchise people convicted of felonies as an ostensibly race-neutral way to diminish the political power of newly freed Black Americans. Viewed against this historical backdrop, the onset of mass incarceration in the current era expands the impact of a practice intended to be both racist and punitive from the start.
This account is true, but it is incomplete. Non-criminal mass institutionalization has also played—and continues to play—a role in systematic disenfranchisement. Marshaling a wealth of archival and historical evidence, from newspapers, legislative debates, congressional hearings, and court cases, I reveal that institutional disenfranchisement is not just about mass incarceration—a singular phenomenon sparked by the Civil War that happens solely within the carceral state and targeted only freed Black people. Institutional disenfranchisement began much earlier, included more spaces than the prison, and initially targeted white men. Indeed, the more familiar prison disenfranchisement had a shadowy twin within the welfare state. Civil death includes more ghosts than previously imagined.