Don’t Jail the Vote

Letting prisoners vote is an issue of enfranchisement and civil rights

It seems hard to argue for felons’ rights. They’re the one group that is politically untouchable. Not only do candidates shun them to avoid being seen as “soft on crime,” but practically speaking, it would be a waste of time to pay any attention to those who can’t vote. The inmate is the bogeyman of American politics; because felons are feared and reviled, their lack of voting rights goes unmentioned in popular political discourse. However, the nonvoting status of felons is an affront to their rights as citizens, and because of the specific demographics of the incarcerated population, it is also a civil-rights issue; it should be eliminated immediately.

Perhaps it makes sense to first ask: Why do we strip the felon of her vote? According to some, this revocation of a citizen’s most fundamental right is a logical part of what a criminal must relinquish for having broken the social contract. Others claim it is to prevent people with such a clear lack of judgment from influencing the way the country is run.

These claims would perhaps make sense if we were not currently jailing an excessive portion of the population. The truth is, with 2.3 million people behind bars, we in the United States may be nearing the point where a major reevaluation of civil rights in our justice system becomes necessary. The number of people that voted in the 2008 presidential election was 132.6 million, approximately 57 percent of eligible voters. Therefore, depending in which state the felon vote was distributed, even half of prisoners voting could have made a small to significant difference. If it comes to the point that the “felon vote” is actually electorally consequential, we should seriously question why so many people are being locked up in the first place; we should not be incarcerating enough people to impact an election. Notwithstanding this reality, as we work out larger problems with the way we punish people, we should allow this not-inconsequential bloc of voters to have a substantive say in elections.

After all, elections function as a national conversation on, among many things, the criminal justice system. Therefore, the right to vote influences the existence or disappearance of all the other rights. The loss of physical freedom, which is at the heart of incarceration, is not as consequential as disenfranchisement. If you are incarcerated but retain the vote, you have value to the political system and cannot be completely ignored. However, if you are incarcerated without the right to vote, you, and everyone else in your position, is suddenly invisible.

Further complicating the issue of disenfranchising felons is that black Americans are severely overrepresented in prison. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that blacks make up 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population, but as reported by a July 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation report, African-American men make up 40 percent of the prison population. Data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2007 revealed that there are more than three times as many black people living in prison than in college. Therefore, giving prisoners the right to vote is also a civil-rights issue. Denying this privilege disenfranchises an already-underrepresented minority group from influencing an election and compounds historical injustices.

We must enfranchise all Americans, regardless of previous criminal convictions, so that our government is responsible for the system of justice it maintains. This is an even more important issue now, as it is uncertain if our criminal justice system is trustworthy and fair enough that everyone in prison actually deserves to be there. We must enfranchise the convict, not because disenfranchisement is too harsh, but because it is the only way to forestall serious abuses in the way we punish people in America.

Michael F. Cotter ’14, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Matthews Hall.