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Shouldn’t Prisoners Be Allowed to Vote?
(Photo: Keith Ivey / Flickr)

Shouldn’t Prisoners Be Allowed to Vote?

(Photo: Keith Ivey / Flickr)

Right now, just two states in our nation are full democracies: Maine and Vermont. That’s because those two New England states are the only states in the entire country that let convicted felons vote while they’re in prison and when they leave prison.

The other 48 states should be following their example. The right to vote is the foundational building block of our democratic republic. If we want everybody involved in our democracy, then everybody should be able to vote.

Somewhere along the way, a bunch of states decided it was a good idea to cut people off from the right to vote if they broke the law. It turns out, that’s stupid and counterproductive.

When people vote, they feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. They feel like they’re part of the nation. They know that they have a say in the way things are run in this country.

At some point, most felons will leave prison and re-enter everyday society. As we prepare them for everyday life outside of a prison cell or a jail-yard, we have to make them feel like they’re an essential part of the community before letting them free. When prisoners can vote while behind bars, that’s one more reason for them to feel like they’re still part of the outside world and one less reason for them to feel alienated and break the law again.

This isn’t just good for prisoners and ex-prisoners, though. It’s good for everyone and it’s good for the health of democracy. When more people participate in the democratic process and when more people get to make decisions about who they want in office, politicians and the media respond to their interests. And when the media and political class respond to the needs and interests of all citizens, that, in turn, encourages people to continue to get out and vote.

This virtuous cycle is essential to democracy. In fact, it’s the whole point of a democratic republic in the first place. We want people to vote because in a democratic republic every viewpoint contributes something important to the marketplace of ideas. So when convicted felons and prisoners get to vote, they add yet another voice to our democracy. And that’s good for everyone.

The suggestion that everybody, even felons, should be allowed and encouraged to vote is absolutely consistent with the American tradition of making our democracy more and more inclusive, generation after generation.

Early in our country’s history, the right to vote was restricted in some states to propertied, literate white men. At the same time, though, the arc of our history has been to give more and more people the vote, to add more people to the political community. We gave voting rights to freed slaves with the 15th Amendment, we gave voting rights to adult women with the 19th Amendment, and we gave voting rights to 18 year-olds with the 26th Amendment.

We gave the right to vote to all these groups because the more people that participate in the democratic process, the better it is for our nation. We gave them the right to vote because we believe that all groups contribute something essential to society and that everyone benefits from their participation.

Tragically, since the Reagan Revolution, we’ve seen state after state move to restrict the right to vote. Florida is trying to stop old people from voting. North Carolina wants to stop students from voting. Texas is going after the voting rights of blacks and Hispanics. State after state, across our country, voter suppression laws have been promoted with money from billionaires like the Koch brothers to make voting more and more difficult and thus turn the “voting class” into one that is largely wealthy and white.

It’s time to reverse this insane trend.

All citizens deserve the right to vote. It’s simple as that. The only time you lose your right to vote should be when you renounce your citizenship and abandon the political community. Until then, everyone, regardless of their skin color, their economic status, whether they are a student or a senior citizen should be encouraged to vote.

Voting rights for prisoners and ex-felons is just the logical next step.

And the best way to do ensure this is by passing a constitutional amendment establishing an affirmative right to vote for every American citizen. It’s as simple as that.