Allowing People in Prison to Vote Shouldn’t Be Controversial

Bernie Sanders’s statement that people should be able to vote while in prison has sparked self-righteous, near-gleeful outrage from Republicans and Democrats alike. Fox News was aflutter with news of Sanders wanting to allow “terrorists” to vote, and played footage of the Boston Marathon bombing in response. GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted that it was “beyond extreme” and proved “how radical the Democrat Party has become.” Meanwhile Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg outright condemned the idea, venturing that losing voting rights is a natural part of one’s punishment while incarcerated. Kamala Harris stated that “people who commit murder … should be deprived of their rights,” and even Elizabeth Warren, seen as a more progressive candidate, said she’s “not there yet.”

Sanders’s statement was a response to a question about whether people incarcerated for murder or sexual assault should have access to the ballot. The person asking the question wondered, for example, whether people convicted of sexual assault should be able to vote, since their votes could impact women’s rights. Sanders answered that they should, because once you start “chipping away” at people’s voting rights, “you’re running down a slippery slope.”

The mass disenfranchisement of incarcerated people has a racist past and a racist present, and has been used in particular as a tool to suppress the Black vote. And since police and the criminal legal system disproportionately target Black, Native, Latinx, trans, poor and disabled people, the denial of the vote to people behind bars takes a sharp toll on many marginalized communities, subjecting them to what many call “civil death” — depriving a person of all legal rights. Meanwhile, for redistricting purposes, incarcerated people are generally counted as part of the populations of the (often very white and rural) districts where they’re locked up, boosting the electoral advantage of those districts. (Some state-level efforts to change these policies are, thankfully, underway.)

It’s no coincidence that the two states that allow people in prison to vote are Vermont and Maine, the two whitest states in the country.

The injustice is hard to deny – but the specter of “terrorists,” “murderers” and “rapists” being able to fill out a ballot is apparently so daunting that, aside from Sanders, none of the other 2020 Democratic contenders can bring themselves to support the right of all incarcerated people to vote. Beto O’Rourke suggested yesterday that he might rethink disenfranchisement for “nonviolent offenders” behind bars, but not for “violent criminals.”

This sharp division between “nonviolent” and “violent” people – in prison and in society more generally – is inaccurate and damaging. It enables us to create a whole class of people (those who’ve been convicted of violent crimes) who are seen as irredeemable and less than human. This makes it more possible for us to justify acts of unspeakable violence and torture, such as solitary confinement and death by incarceration (“life sentences”), against this subset of incarcerated people.

As is clear from the number of white men who continue to hold positions of power in politics, corporations, the arts, journalism, the nonprofit sector and even “social justice” organizations, despite having committed acts of rape and sexual assault, being convicted of a violent crime is a very different category from people who’ve actually committed acts of violence. As my friend Lacino Hamilton, an incarcerated writer and activist, once pointed out, the catalog of people who’ve been convicted of crimes is “a very narrow investigation of poor and oppressed people” – while the mass violence wrought by colonialism, white supremacy, imperialism and capitalism is so often ignored, dismissed, or enthusiastically endorsed.

In fact, if we take a moment to focus on which people in our society have caused the most violence — rather than focusing on which people have been convicted of violent crimes — it quickly becomes clear that all of our presidents and vast numbers of other elected officials are complicit in horrific acts of mass violence.

Indeed, by leading brutal U.S. wars abroad, enabling the use of the death penalty and deploying the lethal violence of deportation, all of our recent presidents have in practice been complicit in mass murder.

Unless they plan to entirely upend the way the United States has always operated, via colonialism, militarism, environmental destruction, and the prison-industrial complex itself, any future president — including all the candidates on the town hall stage Monday night – will also be complicit in acts of horrific violence.

But disenfranchising our murderous public officials would do little good. (As Sanders said, it’s a slippery slope!) Instead, we must challenge them to enact mass enfranchisement.

By enfranchisement, I don’t only mean the right to vote. Voting rights for incarcerated people should be a baseline – this should be wholly uncontroversial among all people who call themselves progressive. The word “enfranchise” comes from the Old French enfranchir, “to set or make free.” Today, in addition to describing the granting of the vote, “enfranchise” also means “to set free.” It seems that one of the most important tasks for any worthwhile leader in this country would be to listen hard to those who’ve been working toward freedom — from incarceration, from violent policing, from deportation, from colonization and genocide, from economic injustice, from environmental degradation – and take their words and visions to heart.

The goal of setting people free overlaps with a real commitment to working against violence. Almost all of our presidential candidates appear to be arguing that disenfranchising millions of people is unavoidable, because of some nebulous notion that they will otherwise be legitimizing “violence.” Yet these candidates will be very concretely legitimizing violence simply by taking the office of the presidency – unless they approach that role with a radically different framework than all of their predecessors.

So, what are some serious steps these candidates could take to actually address violence and enact mass enfranchisement once in office?

For starters, the next president could grant mass clemencies to free people from death-making prisons, setting an example for governors who might do the same for state prisons. The next president could work to bring all U.S. troops home and close down U.S. military bases, stop using drones to kill people, stop deporting people, and work to abolish ICE and borders. (This would address another enormous case of disenfranchisement: that of undocumented immigrants.) This hypothetical president could defund murderous military, policing and imprisonment priorities and instead fund life-sustaining priorities like health care, education, housing, and full reparations for the U.S.’s past and ongoing acts of violence against Black, Native and other oppressed people, as well as an unequivocal commitment to confront climate change.

Moreover, if the next president really cares about ending sexual violence, instead of disenfranchising large numbers of people, they could do everything they can to dismantle the military, which has always perpetrated sexual violence both abroad and at home. Instead of denying the vote to people within prisons, they could do everything in their power to abolish prisons themselves: Sexual violence is foundational in that institution as well, with guards committing rampant sexual assault, including through sanctioned procedures like strip searches.

This hypothetical president who is truly concerned about sexual violence could also advocate for massive amounts of funding to be put toward non-carceral priorities that truly support survivors, like counseling services, housing, and full mental and physical health care. They could take a cue from the tireless work of activists, led primarily by Black feminist organizers, who have long advocated to dismantle imprisonment-oriented answers to violence – “answers” which too often lead to the incarceration of survivors themselves.

Of course, this imaginary president will not materialize. In many ways, their existence would run counter to the existence of the presidency itself. Still, imagining them is a useful exercise, because if we are to make real progress, we need to dream higher and farther and more creatively than the next election.

Denying the vote to people convicted of violent crimes does nothing to address violence; in fact, it perpetuates it. Instead, any leader dedicated to working against violence would need to commit to enfranchisement in every sense of the word, including the oldest one: freedom.