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Felony Disenfranchisement: Should Felons have the Right to Vote?

Felony Disenfranchisement
Felony disenfranchisement does not work.

Felony disenfranchisement suppresses voter participation on a massive scale. Only Maine and Vermont permit felons who are currently serving their sentences to vote while they are in prison. If our goal is to rehabilitate people so that they successfully reintegrate themselves into society after they’ve completed their sentences, then we’re actually further alienating them by denying their rights to vote.

As of March 2016, in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., as well as our overseas territories and colonies, prisoners who are awaiting trial, as well as people who are serving prison terms for misdemeanor offenses, are permitted to vote via absentee ballot.  Only Maine and Vermont permit felons who are currently serving their sentences to vote while they are in prison.

In all states except for Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, felons have their rights to vote returned to them after they’ve completed their sentences.

If our goal is for our prisons to become facilities where we are going to attempt to rehabilitate people so that they successfully reintegrate themselves into society after they’ve completed their sentences, then we’re actually further alienating them by denying their rights to vote.

Felony disenfranchisement and prison refrom

Whenever anyone talks about any issues related to prison reform, a few obvious questions are always raised.  Some critics of universal suffrage will point out that prisons are intended to be punitive, prisons are not intended to become vacation camps.  Which is true.

However, I’m not proposing that prisoners’ cells be fitted with luxurious furniture, expensive artwork or gourmet meals (there have been a couple of famous instances in the U.S. back in the 1970’s when mafia bosses who were in various jails managed to bribe enough guards so that their cells began to look more like luxury hotel rooms than prison cells)-  I’m merely proposing that twice per year, felons be given the opportunity to request absentee ballots for the primary and the general elections (plus by-elections) so that we’re not further alienating them or their families from a system that they’ve already lost trust in.

If we return prisoners’ rights to vote, they will know that system did not abandon them

People often turn to crime because they don’t feel that they are part of a society which embraces their cultural values and they feel alienated from the world around them to begin with.  Questions as to whether our prisons are in fact effectively making these issues even worse rather than effectively addressing them can also be traced back nearly a century now.

If we return prisoners’ rights to vote, we will be giving them an opportunity to pay attention to their local, state and federal governments, they’ll have the option to read about the candidates, the issues, and they can feel that they still have an opportunity to participate in a system which is not ignoring them, warehousing them and abandoning them.

In the federal prison system, there is no parole, so a life sentence is in fact almost always a life sentence.  All of our state prison systems as well as in Washington, D.C. and our overseas territories and colonies, do have parole within the penal systems, so life sentences are effectively often reduced.

Felony disenfranchisement does not work 

People who are serving lengthy sentences or life sentences are given the option to use either their families’ address or the prisons that they are in as their legal addresses.  Based on which addresses they select, they could then vote via absentee ballot.  This would give them the options to vote in the general elections. In the states which have open primaries, they could vote in the primaries. In the states which have closed primaries, they could vote in the primaries if they opt to register with a party, and they’d also be able to vote in local elections, by-elections and special elections.  Possibly in the largest prisons, it may make sense to also bring in voting machines and have a polling place set up for the prisoners to vote.

Felony disenfranchisement alienate prisoners from the society 

As far back as the nineteenth century, prisons had introduced labor programs and throughout the course of the 20th century, educational programs had been implemented in various prisons.  These have been studied, and while none of these eliminate recidivism, these programs do seem to effectively give people more of an opportunity to reintegrate themselves into the society that they are released into.

Someone who has achieved a GED, an associate degree or a bachelors degree while in prison will be more likely to be able to find employment after they’ve completed their terms.  The labor programs in which prisoners stamp vehicle license plates, manufacture furniture for government offices, uniforms for government agencies, etc. do effectively teach people how to operate machinery which becomes a skill that they can use to find employment once they are released.

If we further give prisoners’ the option to vote, some of them will be paying attention to the candidates and the issues, and they can have the option not only to be released with a job skill and an education, they’ll also be released into a world in which they’ve been voting for the city, county, state and federal offices.

We’re also probably effectively alienating the family members of prisoners by continuing to deny prisoners the right to vote because disenfranchisement contributes to the sense that the needs of convicts are one of the lowest priorities for state and federal government agencies.  If we return the right to vote to prisoners, we’ll be sending a clear message not only to the felons but to their families that our government agencies are not in fact abandoning them, that our state and federal governments have not forgotten about them, and we do understand that attempting to reintegrate themselves into society after they’ve completed their sentences can be complicated and stressful for them.

President Obama Visits the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution

In July of 2015, President Obama visited the prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution in  El Reno, Oklahoma. That was the first time in American history that an American president has visited a prison and conversed with prisoners.  During his conversation with the prisoners whom he had met with, they did discuss recidivism, and how our prisons often become “revolving doors.”  While the issue of voting did not come up during his conversation with the convicts, it was clear that the issues which was of greatest concern to both President Obama as well as to the prisoners was how they might be able to reintegrate themselves into society after they’ve completed their sentences, so that they are not tempted to return back the same behaviors that sent them to prison to begin with.

Realistically, just as in the rest of the country, if we were to return the rights to vote to all prisoners who are currently incarcerated, many of them who would now be eligible to vote in the elections will opt not to, they may simply not be interested in paying attention to politics and to the candidates-  I’m merely proposing that we give them the option to vote.  In addition to the issues which I’d mentioned which directly affect prisoners, most prisoners have family members whom they stay in touch with, and some of them may be interested in voting because some candidates might be advocating for issues which are relevant to their families.

Is felony disenfranchisement constitutional ?

Regarding the constitutionality issues, yes, felony disenfranchisement is clearly permissible.  Article I of our Constitution simply defines that both houses of congress are intended to be elected bodies, and Article II simply states that the President will be an elected office.  There are no terms which define specifically who would be eligible to vote in the elections, so under the terms of the 10th Amendment (1791), by default the decision as to who will be eligible to vote was left to the individual state governments.  The 14th Amendment (1868) does very clearly include terms which allow for denying convicted felons the right to vote, although it is important to note here that the 14th Amendment merely allows for permitting felony disenfranchisement, the 14th Amendment does not actually in any way require that convicted felons be barred from voting.   If we look at our history, we can see that every time we expand our electorate, we subsequently diversify our pool of candidates, and we end up with candidates who are paying attention to quite a few issues which had been previously largely ignored.

In 1870 the 15th Amendment gave full voting rights to African American males.  In 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women’s suffrage, in 1924, Native Americans were given full citizenship rights, including voting, in 1965 the Voting Rights Act eliminated many of the obstacles to voter registration, and in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.  And each time we’ve expanded the number of eligible voters, all subsequent elections have included candidates who were paying attention to a broader array of issues of both foreign and domestic policies.

 

The United States is the world’s  leader in incarceration

As of 2016, the United States still has the highest percentage of our own population in prisons in the entire world and once again, this is not anything at all new here, we’ve led the world in terms of percentage of our own population in prison for many decades now.

We presently have at least 1 million convicted felons within our federal and state prisons who are U.S. citizens who are over the age of 18 who would be eligible to vote if we were to return the right to vote to felons who are serving their sentences.  This could in fact be potentially equally beneficial to the Democrats, to the Republicans as well as to all of the third party candidates, because this would create a new pool of voters whom they could attempt to address the needs of during their campaigns.  In recent years, the closest elections have been won and lost by margins of only a few hundred votes, so this could in fact change the future of our elections.

Felony disenfranchisement does not work

The definition of which crimes constitute a felony and which crimes constitute misdemeanor offenses vary from state to state. In some instances, what would constitute a misdemeanor in one state would be classified as a felony in a neighboring state.  Therefore, in some instances, prisoners are losing their rights to vote based on comparably relatively minute details in how the legal system opts to interpret the crimes.

Whole it is  impossible to know precisely how many people are currently serving prison sentences for crimes that they had no involvement in, projects such as The Innocence Project are making it increasingly apparent every year that we do have quite a few people who have been wrongfully convicted who are presently incarcerated within American prisons.  This is of particular relevance because if someone has been wrongfully convicted in a federal court, our federal government reimburses them for their time served.  If someone is determined to have been wrongfully convicted of a crime in a state court, then there currently exists no Federal legislation which would require that the states reimburse people for the time that they’d spent in prison.  Approximately half of our state governments do currently reimburse people for the time that they served in prison once it has been determined that they’d been wrongfully convicted, but concurrently, half of our state governments do not pay any reimbursements.

We might want to ask ourselves what we are in fact effectively accomplishing by continuing to bar felons from voting while they are incarcerated and if it still makes sense to perpetuate  disenfranchisement in the 21st century.

With so many wrongful convictions now being publicized due to projects such as the Innocence Project, we might want to ask ourselves if we in fact can afford not to consider federal legislation which would require returning full voting rights to prisoners. Felony disenfranchisement simply does not work.

With so many recent near riots in 2014 and in 2015 following incidents of alleged police brutality in so many different cities, the mainstream media did in fact show stories on television news shows and there was no shortage of articles in newspapers which inquired as to whether large segments of our population are losing all trust in law enforcement, and in our criminal justice system entirely.

What are your views on felony disenfranchisement? Should felons have the right to Vote?What do you think about the reform where twice per year, prisoners will be given the opportunity to request absentee ballots for the primary and the general elections (plus by-elections) so that we’re not further alienating them  from a system that they’ve already lost trust in?

 

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About the author

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Scott lives in Rye, N.Y. photo credit: Liza Margulies