Felon Voting

In the United States the ability to cast a vote is an essential right. Felons should not be an exception.

A simple Google search will uncover a trove of amazing and gruesome stories and gigabytes of hard data on the difficulty of life for people incarcerated for a crime:  psychological deprivation and other forms of mental abuse; the development of or worsening of drug abuse; sexual assaults and physical abuse by one’s fellow prisoners or guards; problems with the privatization of prisons.

Of these things, many of us outside our nation’s prison’s walls are aware, through personal or family experience, reading, even by streaming Netflix’s Orange is the New Black.  However, I think most of us are unaware of the many difficulties that face ex-felons after they have served their time (and endured their punishment) – at a point where we say they have,  “repaid society.”  One of these is that many people, after serving their sentence, and rejoining society, cannot regain the right to vote.  

This issue has been in the news recently due the efforts of Governor Terry McAuliffe to restore voting rights to former felons in Virginia, an executive action he casts as a move to restore civil rights

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, two states permit felons to vote while incarcerated (Maine, Vermont), but in the other 48 states and the District of Columbia (DC), there are various forms of disenfranchisement, which may persist and endure permanently after release.  In 13 states and the District of Columbia, the right to vote is forfeit only while incarcerated and there is supposed to be automatic restoration after release.

In 29 states, the right to vote is lost until completion of the sentence (which may be parole and/or probation, with automatic restoration thereafter), although there are numerous exceptions especially in relation to drug charges.  In 9 states, the governor must grant a pardon or a court action must be obtained.  

Yet this simple synopsis fails to describe the innumerable difficulties the nearly 700,000 ex-felons who leave our prisons yearly face in their efforts to regain voting rights. First, as one can see, there is uncertainty around re-registering. Furthermore, documentation and communication among multiple state and local agencies can be incomplete and uncoordinated.  

Third, only Wyoming actively restores an ex-felon’s right to vote, which suggests that local and state agencies need to do more to reduce the barriers to information .  Finally, simple governmental inertia – such as under-funding agencies, like parole boards, that would facilitate restoration of voting rights – serves to cripple ex-felons’ civil rights:  another form of rationing and, possibly, of gerrymandering, as the data from several states, as noted below, suggest.

In the United States the ability to cast a vote is an essential right.  

Millions of Americans have fought in wars, and millions more have marched and faced ridicule, ostracism, and even beatings and imprisonment, so that, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth” .

Yet today, nearly 6 million American adults cannot vote after serving time for a felony conviction, an increase of nearly 4.7 million since the bicentennial year of 1976 .  This means that 1 in 40 adults cannot vote.  When one drills deeper into those numbers, however, one realizes that one in every 13 black adults cannot vote as the result of a felony conviction.  In three states with the most restrictive rules – Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – more than one in five black adults is disenfranchised .  

And, if current trends continue, 1 in 3 black men born in 2001 can expect to go to prison at least once – a form of mass incarceration that will only accentuate the disenfranchisement and lack of influence of the black community on government and legislation .

If one aim of prison is punishment, then a second aim, for those who have a time-limited sentence, is for a successful reintegration into society, as a legal citizen: to enjoy the benefits of freedom in civil society; to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, without transgressing on the rights and freedoms of others; and, to be able to decide who should represent him in government and make those laws that govern society, including punishment for breaking just laws.

The past five decades in America have seen a transformation of punishment from an emphasis on social safety and stability of the commons into one focused on vengeance that pursues the criminal long past the crime, sometimes until the grave.  

I am not ignoring the fact that there are wicked people and that they commit crimes that are heinous.  But vast majority of felons, who have served time for their transgressions, are likely willing, and – if we commit society’s resources to education, training, and rehabilitation – able, to resume a life in our society.

This includes restoring the right to vote for local, state, and federal officials who will determine their lives, except in limited situations (for example, in cases of felony recidivism; having bought or sold votes; there can be some debate, still).  Let us devote ourselves to helping our fellow Americans become first-class citizens in every respect.

Bio:  Thomas Weil was a Yale Young Global Scholar in 2016. He attends Wyoming Seminary Preparatory School in Kingston, PA, where he is a leader of his school’s Model UN and an avid member of the Harvey’s Lake Rowing Club. He is interested in international affairs, global politics, and public policy and service. He hopes to combine rowing with his education in college, and perhaps beyond.

Thomas Weil was a Yale Young Global Scholar in 2016.

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