As the elections heat up and many people engage in the election process, let’s think about basic voting rights. There are a huge number of citizens who are intentionally and entirely excluded from the election process because voting rights are often stripped from people who have been convicted of felonies. Most of these people are nonviolent offenders, and some have never even been sent to prison. But for many, for the rest of their lives, they will not be allowed to participate in this important part of our society and their political voice will never be heard.
Think that Iowa or Florida might play a key role in the presidential election? Well those are two of the twelve states where most adults convicted of certain felonies can never vote again, no matter how much time passes or how successfully they might have turned their lives around after serving their time. In Mississippi, passing a $100 bad check carries a lifetime voting rights ban. Twenty-three states deny voting rights to any felon until he or she has completed probation, which can often last for years after a prison sentence is completed. In fact, there are only two states – Vermont and Maine – that have no restrictions on the voting rights of people with criminal convictions. Basically, there is a patchwork approach of confusing and ever-changing laws that vary from state to state and disenfranchise millions (the chart below shows where each state currently stands).
This stripping of voting rights has a profound impact on our elections. As readers of this blog know, this country has a mass incarceration problem. The United States has 2.3 million people behind bars, more than any other nation in the world. Because of this, almost six million Americans are denied their voting rights due to a felony conviction. This number becomes even more disturbing when you couple it with the glaring racial disparities in our criminal justice system at every stage of the justice process (people of color are simply more likely to be searched, accused, tried, and convicted, and once convicted, they are punished more harshly). The net result is that 2.5% of Americans are denied voting rights due to a current or past felony conviction, and for blacks, the figure is much higher. About 1 out of every 13 adult African Americans is not allowed to vote, with rates climbing as high as 1 in 3 in some states. In Florida, more than 1 in 5 black adults is excluded from voting. That’s more than enough votes denied to change the outcome of an election.
And it’s important to consider why we even prevent convicted felons from voting in the first place. Voting rights have been shown to have a rehabilitative effect on ex-felons, which makes sense. Voting is civic engagement that increases people’s connection to society, and that makes former felons less likely to reoffend. Moreover, the vast majority of convicted felons were raised in poverty – these are precisely the people who most need a voice in our society. So why ban this segment of the population from voting? Former Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. explained it as a vestige of the racist policies of the South after the Civil War, a way of using the criminal justice system to keep blacks from fully participating in society. In modern times, it still seems like an extension of the same thinking: our criminal justice is skewed to ensure that a disproportionate number of convicted felons are African American, which is a demographic that predominantly votes Democratic. Keeping felons from voting eliminates what could be a formidable voting bloc.
A less cynical view than racism and political calculation is that ex-felons are stripped of voting rights as a form of punishment. But the reality is that – with, by far, the highest incarceration rate in the world – we have more than sufficient means in place for punishing felons. Our priority should be on rehabilitating offenders, and the best way to do that is to allow them to engage and invest in their community. Prisoners and ex-offenders alike should be allowed the most basic civic right in our republic, the right to vote.