Felon disenfranchisement is a known and pressing issue in the United States, a nation where people can be stripped of their voting rights long after committing a crime and serving time for it. Disenfranchisement after release has been heavily criticised, especially since it disproportionately affects men of colour in the United States, effectively depriving an entire minority community of the vote. Under normal circumstances, that would seem like a highly suspicious civil rights violation, yet, because it’s filtered through the racist prison system, the government, and voters, seem largely complacent about the issue. After all, letting people vote after committing crimes wouldn’t be fair, and if most people who commit crimes just happen to be men of colour, well, that’s how it goes, right?
Of course, the reality of the justice system is that it’s intensely racist, and no one race is more given to crime than any other. People of colour, however, are more likely to be profiled, investigated, and convicted for crimes, even if they didn’t commit them. This leads not just to felon disenfranchisement but to keeping entire generations out of society, restricting engagement on the part of men of colour, and creating generational poverty and other social problems, as once you have a felony conviction, you’re stuck with it for life. Having a conviction has a serious effect on your future life opportunities, even if you actively seek a chance for reform (or if you were in prison for something you didn’t do).
Why is it that prisoners across the US should have the right to vote taken from them by the state? This should be a fundamental human right for all US citizens of voting age (another subject of some discussion and controversy). Period. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, you should be able to take an active role in the political system, or to choose, if you’re so inclined, not to do so. Felons could refuse their ballots and not participate, and that would be within their rights as well, but they have to receive the right to refuse before they can exercise it. Simply telling them they’re no longer permitted to vote doesn’t cut it.
Felons are part of society, though they may be in prison. They should be able to play an active role in deciding who gets to occupy government positions linked to prison conditions; governors, for example, who may be appointing prison personnel, appeals court judges, and others involved with the justice system. They should also be able to vote on matters that are important to them as citizens of the United States (the Presidential election), the state (Assemblymembers and propositions), and the region (individual ballot measures). There’s no reason felons should be cut out of social participation and the huge potential implications of the vote because the justice system found them guilty.
While I don’t believe that people should be imprisoned, period, I also don’t hold with the argument that prison should be a locale of utter isolation. Prisoners should be allowed to have contact with the outside world and should in fact be encouraged to do so in order to build up opportunities for themselves, maintain contact with friends and family, and be reminded that they are human beings, who deserve respectful treatment and an acknowledgement of their basic humanity. Not allowing prisoners to vote is absurd, because it strips them of a fundamental right.
The way I vote this November won’t just determine the outcome of California’s midterm election. It will also have an effect on California, and national, politics for years to come. I’m voting on behalf of underaged people who can’t vote yet, and I have to think about their interests when I fill out my ballot. I have to consider the needs of California’s massive prison population, too, as California’s prisoners are not allowed to vote. (Only Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote via absentee ballot while imprisoned.) I also have to consider undocumented immigrants and their human rights as well — as it turns out, my one vote is counting for a whole lot of people who don’t get to cast their votes, and that’s not the way this is supposed to work.
A prisoner deprived of the right to vote this November won’t be playing an active role in making decisions about the future of California’s justice system, which means that prisoners can’t make choices about their future and that of people who share similar experiences. Prisoners are among the best equipped to answer the question of what kind of reform the justice system needs and which politicians would be most likely to enact functional, compassionate, useful reforms — but they’re not being permitted to offer their voices to the conversation.
If this seems unreasonable to you, it should. It’s ludicrous. Prisoners, regardless of what they’ve done and who they are, deserve the right to vote, just like everyone else does. Everyone in the United States should have unrestricted access to the polls, period, and every vote should be counted. The fact that the US can’t protect voting rights for the populations who do have them, let alone break down current barriers to voting among disenfranchised populations, is telling, frustrating, and revolting. I don’t like living in a country where the people my government sends to prison in my name can’t play a role in the government, and neither should anyone else.
I might not agree with the politics of all prisoners everywhere, but the same could be said of me and other voters. That’s the wonder of the secret ballot, though: The way we vote is our own private business, and no one needs to know about it but ourselves.
Image: Je désire voter, Jeanne Menj, Flickr.