Before I was sentenced to 30 years in prison for marijuana possession and cultivation, I was incredibly active in politics. I was so involved in the political process that I was elected as a state delegate during the 2012 Presidential election. This was after my arrest, but before my conviction, so I still had the right to vote.
Once I was incarcerated, my voting rights were taken away, and I still can’t vote while on parole. Once I finish my parole, I can go through the tedious process of filing a petition to get my voting rights restored.
When it comes to felons voting, the rules vary by state. The vast majority of states do not allow you to vote when you are in prisonㄧMaine and Vermont are the exception.
I’m very passionate about this topic, and after learning the history behind state voting laws aimed at felons, most states still embrace voting restrictions on people who have committed crimes.
While our society continues to evolve, discrimination is still allowed against felons because of a belief that their opinions don’t matter or are somehow dangerous to the election process even after serving their sentence.
This blog post will cover:
The idea of inmates voting may seem crazy, but it actually has a lot of constitutional merit. Denying an inmate the right to vote violates an ideal that was extremely important to our foundersㄧthe concept of self-government.
Since 1970, the drug war has exploded the prison population, and it has led to tens of millions of felons living in the United States, both inside and outside of prison walls. These people experience the horrible world of the criminal justice system and the prison system in a way that most citizens don’t understand, and the best way to solve those problems is to include inmates and felons in that political debate.
When our society tells prisoners and felons that they can’t vote, they are saying that prisoners aren’t citizens of this country. A long time ago, there was this idea of, “civic death,” which meant, when a crime was committed, all rights were stripped away once behind bars.
That has changed in recent decades, thanks to the Supreme Court. Prisoners have rights of religious freedom and free speech, and the Court also ruled that taking away citizenship can’t be a punishment for a crime.
As Justice Earl Warren wrote in the 1958 case Trop v. Dulles: “Citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior.”
There are currently over 2 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails across the United States. And, as Corey Brettschneiderㄧprofessor of Political Science at Brown Universityㄧpoints out, disenfranchising prisoners creates a class of people who are still subject to the laws of the United States, but they have no voice in how they are governed. It’s essentially taxation without representation.
Not allowing prisoners to vote also creates a caste system. In most states where prisoners can’t vote, they are still counted in the population. That determines a state’s number of representatives and Presidential electoral votes. The NAACP calls this, “prison-based gerrymandering,” and it’s a lot like the notorious three-fifths clause in the Constitution.
Critics say that if inmates are allowed to vote, it is essentially letting the inmates run the asylum. However, prisoners voting would not only allow them to help themselves, but the prison system itself.
Prisoners know issues like prisoner abuse, inhumane living conditions, overcrowding, solitary confinement, and substandard health care better than anyone else. Under our current system, ending this abuse requires years of litigation.
If prisoners could vote, those issues could be addressed much more quickly, and it wouldn’t cost near as much money.
Right now, it is still a popular opinion that inmates shouldn’t have the right to vote. Honestly, this issue hasn’t really been debated. While opinions are starting to change about felon voting rights, no one has discussed people being able to vote while incarcerated.
Many people resist the idea because the goal of prison is to inflict punishment, but this is a narrow view, and incredibly short-sighted. Being in prison is the punishment. There is no need to add anything else. There is nothing worse than losing your freedom, not being able to see your friends and family, and not being able to earn a living. There is no need to take things further.
Ultimately, the argument against inmates voting is this: If you’re not willing to follow the law, then you should not have a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote.
What if the law you violated is a terrible law? With drug laws incarcerating millions, should people with addiction problems not be able to participate in the voting process? I was put in prison because there were twelve marijuana plants in the home I lived in. The prosecutor didn’t like that I fought the charge, refusing to take his deal. Does that mean I should never be able to vote?
The voting laws for felons after prison vary by state, and the rules range from automatic reinstatement to lifetime bans based on the crime committed.
The exact number of convicted felons in the country is hard to pin down. One study, led by Sarah K.S. Shannon, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Georgia, estimated that about 8% of American adults had a felony record in 2010.
That is an incredible amount of people to keep out of the democratic process. Often times, they are banned for one bad mistake or a personal choice that doesn’t sync with state law, like me.
At what point have felons paid their debt society? Why can’t they be considered, “normal,” citizens again after serving their sentence? Do you think felons should have the right to vote?
Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Felon Voting Rights By State https://www.jobsforfelonshub.com/felon-voting-rights/ Can Felons Vote? https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/21/us/felony-voting-rights-law.html Why Prisoners Deserve The Right To Vote https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/06/prisoners-convicts-felons-inmates-right-to-vote-enfranchise-criminal-justice-voting-rights-213979 There are Good Reasons For Felons To Lose The Right to Vote https://www.heritage.org/election-integrity/commentary/there-are-good-reasons-felons-lose-the-right-vote The Growth, Scope, and Spatial Distribution of People With Felony Records in the United States, 1948–2010 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13524-017-0611-1
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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