Many US states, almost half to be more precise, have restrictions on voting rights for prisoners, and in some cases ex-convicts as well. The nature of these regulations varies from state to state, but it’s telling that a flood of them came after 1977, indicating some sort of mass panic about prisoner voting occurred, and a number of states felt compelled to stem a tide of angry convicts at the polls. This despite the fact that participation at the polls on the part of prisoners was generally low in these states prior to the disenfranchisement laws—legislatures and voters, in other words, barred people from doing something they already weren’t doing, for the most part.
Such laws reveal telling attitudes about prisoners and race; the Prison Policy Initiative generously says that racism probably ‘wasn’t intended‘ by voters, but it very clearly and obviously was. Embedded structural racism plays a key role in attitudes about the prison system, just as it plays a role in who goes to prison, for how long, and where. There are already vast racial disparities in terms of who is in prison in the first place, thanks to a racist system from the ground up; the police officer who pulls the car over, the judge who tries the case, the jury who hears it.
A consequence of having more people of colour and nonwhite people in prison is that when you vote to deny prisoners the right to vote, that disproportionately affects those communities. These kinds of racial disparities in voting rights must be confronted, and must be confronted as what they are: evidence of racism, not innocent decisions on the part of legislatures and the voting public. The right to vote has been historically limited for people of colour through various forms of disenfranchisement, including outright bans, poll taxes, examinations administered to voters, and intimidation. Felon disenfranchisement is only one iteration of a very old system designed to suppress the vote.
There’s no reason prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to vote: Committing a crime should not bar people from participating in the political process and playing a role in who gets elected and which ballot measures pass, because these things will affect prisoners long after their time in prison is over. Likewise, they obviously have a vested interest in things that do directly affect them in prison, like laws that might extend more protections to people in prison, or legislators who pledge to make prison reform part of their efforts if elected into office.
Prisoners may choose not to vote, not to participate in the electoral system, but that should be a choice, rather than a mandate. The same goes to people on parole and people who have served their time and are considered free and clear. They have already done what was mandated by society, they are attempting to integrate back into their communities, and yet, they still aren’t allowed to vote in some states. Struck from the rolls for varying lengths of time, they have no way to fully participate in the political process, which can foster a sense of resentment of disconnection as well as resentment.
Why respect a society that locks you up to defend itself from you and punish you, and then doesn’t concede that you’ve served your time and are ready to be integrated when you’re done with your sentence? At the same time ex-prisoners can’t vote, they also have to deal with housing and employment discrimination, as well as the difficulties involved in integrating into a society that may have passed them by. If you’ve been in prison for a decade, you’ve missed a lot of technical and social advances, and it takes time to catch up. Time which can seem grueling without a support system, especially when you’re constantly reminded of your second class status.
Prisoners are politically engaged. They care about what is happening socially and culturally, and they deserve a right to participate in the political process, to make decisions for themselves about how involved they want to be. They deserve the vote intrinsically, and especially because felon disenfranchisement is racist, and should be discussed in terms of being a civil rights violation, in addition to being a human rights violation. Any critical analysis of the system should note that people of colour are disproportionately represented when it comes to ineligibility to vote, and this is not reasonable.
Voting is instilled as a right among many white families, and in some cases not just as a right, but as a duty. White children, particularly those in the middle class, are typically introduced to voting early, often getting a chance to go to the polls with their parents, and sometimes even to mark the ballot. They talk about politics at the dinner table with their families and make informed comments on the electoral process. Some of those white children go on to be the politicians who appear on those ballots.
For many families of colour, disenfranchisement looms as a historical problem and a modern-day risk. Older Black women, for example, can remember not being able to vote in their lifetimes, and the injustices of the ‘justice system’ are well known to its victims. Children of colour know that voting is not necessarily a right for them when they grow up, but something that can be taken away at the whim of a police officer, a judge, a jury, a politician, the voters. Rather than being a civil right, it is a privilege.
And this is not how this should be.