Like many millions of Americans, I will not be voting in the 2016 presidential election. And while the pundits bemoan voter apathy as a leading cause for the mass no-shows on Election Day, I will be on the sidelines because I will not be permitted to participate. I am a felon, and in prison, and even when I am released, I might never be allowed to vote again.
Though the election is over a year away, with the recent announcements of both Democratic and Republican potential nominees, the question of the disenfranchisement of over 5 million American citizens has once again come to the fore. It doesn’t seem possible that millions of Americans have been stripped of their right to participate in that most fundamental duty and right of citizenship: the right to vote. But that’s a reality that I, and millions of others convicted of crimes, face upon release from prison. And it’s the question Americans need to ask of themselves: do they want to see felons completely disengaged from the society they are re-entering, or do they want to see a population “connected to civic life”?
Across 48 states, felons have lost their rights to participate in the democratic process in one form or another; Vermont and Maine remain the only states that allow currently incarcerated felons to vote. Across the remaining states, felon voting rights vary, from restoration of voting rights post-parole and probation (though often requiring a difficult application process) to the outright denial of voting rights for life.
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I will be released in three years. I have used my time in prison to earn a high school diploma and several legal credentials, to educate myself and others, to advocate for social justice and to engage in all possible rehabilitative measures possible while incarcerated. My engagement with these issues has taught me how I can serve my community and society as a whole: I have a vested interest now in making the world a better place. Citizenship is premised on the concept of duties and rights. If, once released, I am performing my duty as a citizen – contributing to society, paying my taxes, and so forth – then should I not expect the state to deliver on its obligations as well?
The knee-jerk reaction to the question of whether felons should have the right to vote is one that has existed for nearly as long as the concept of franchise has existed in these United States. Based on John Locke’s concept of the “social contract” – which essentially argues that when you commit a crime, you violate the contract we each have with the state – you lose the right to have a role in how that contract’s laws are devised.
But what people forget is that about same time when Locke wrote – in the 1600s – franchise (the right to vote) was used as a very deliberate strategy for ensuring that the property-owning classes maintain their privileged position in society. Throughout the history of the liberal democratic tradition, disenfranchisement has been used as a way to support the ruling classes. Many models saw property owners only afforded voting rights: the goal was to prevent the poor from changing the system to one which did not so clearly benefit property owners. In many cases, women were that property, and they were similarly seen as being a potential disruptive force to the status quo, as were black voters in the post-Reconstruction era. So it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest that the disenfranchisement of former prisoners – a large percentage of whom represents the poor and other marginalized demographics – is done for similar reasons. It’s a difficult argument to suggest that our concepts of citizenship should remain in the 17th, 18th or 19th century.
So if we can agree that this form of social contract theory is flawed in today’s environment, then what justifications remain for disqualifying individuals from arguably the most fundamental right found in our Constitution? Why do we fear felons voting? Does anyone actually think that we will somehow form a cabal of felon voting blocks that will usurp the status quo?
A number of court cases have been argued on the matter, with the Voting Rights Act being pitted against state legislatures which restrict felon voting, the most notable being Richardson v. Ramirez. While initially, the California Supreme Court believed the practice of stripping voting rights could not be justified, the United States Supreme Court overturned that ruling. Another rationale presented is the need to prevent voter fraud. The logic here is that for some reason or another, a felon is more likely to commit voter fraud than someone else. Yet if we’ve learned anything from the voter registration laws enacted in recent years it’s that voter fraud is an entirely manufactured problem.
Others have reasoned that criminals (presumably in these well-organized voting blocks that they’ve formed with what resources, exactly?) will work towards laws that lessen enforcement. But is that not precisely why the complex system of legislative and judicial process exists? To ensure that no single interest can hold sway over policy? Unless these same people believe that the democratic system we vaunt world-wide doesn’t actually work?
Sadly, the principle that seems most likely to be the one guiding current policies, harkens back to the era most of us hope to have moved past: the fear that marginalized populations may express their political will towards changing the status quo.
Most voting restrictions marginalize predominantly African-Americans, with estimates placing the number at one in 12 African-Americans stripped of their voting rights. While it has been argued there are legal provisions toprevent outright discrimination in the application of voting restrictions, such as those based on racial bias, when taken to the courts, these provisions are seemingly unusable. In White v. Regester, which dealt with underrepresentation of Blacks and Hispanics, despite the demonstration of a clear relationship between race and voting restriction, the courts ruled that the relationship was not casual, but coincidental: the number of Blacks disenfranchised was solely the result of more Blacks committing crimes, not any kind of racial bias. Of course, we are more than well-aware of the particularly over-zealous prosecution of African-Americans.
Watching the Ferguson riots and Baltimore burning in a prison dayroom, it seems readily apparent that the men around me feel a deep disconnection from the governance of the communities that they hail from. It seems clear that many “out there” feel the same way. Yet with no right to vote upon release, many will never feel responsible for their community. Why would they?
The right to vote must be restored to all who are released from prison. While the logistics of (and social distaste for) allowing the incarcerated to vote are daunting, simply allowing those who rejoin their communities to do so fully makes sense for all stakeholders. Let them vote. Let them participate.
It may be that we are simply asking for too much at the moment, to see voting rights extended to those currently incarcerated – though myriad countries, including Canada and Japan have done so – but at a minimum, we need tosee the voting rights of felons immediately restored upon release.
With so many issues related to the criminal justice system, it all comes back to asking what the purpose of incarceration is. We know now that the most effective way to reduce crime is to ensure an educated and engaged population – doubly true for reducing recidivism. We now know that the system works most effectively when oriented toward rehabilitation, and not punishment. And we know that a citizen who sees her voice valued by society is one who will work in that society’s interest.
In a country with some of the lowest voter turnout in the industrialized world, it seems galling to deny felons the right to cast their ballots. Indeed, in some countries, the very act of not voting is itself a crime. So what is the message we send, not only to our youth, but to the world at large when we deny those with a vested interest in exercising their political agency by turning them away from the ballot box?