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We are now fully immersed in election season with the 2020 presidential election just a few short months away and primaries fully underway. It is, thus, an apt time to revisit one of the great injustices of the American electoral system, which is the mistreatment and disenfranchisement of the massive prison population in our country.
Senator Bernie Sanders is currently the only presidential candidate calling for granting all incarcerated Americans the right to vote. Yet, not only do incarcerated Americans lack the right to vote but their bodies are often used to further the agendas of those responsible for the growth of the modern carceral state.
Incarcerated Americans are counted in the districts where they are imprisoned and not in the districts where they are registered to vote. This fundamentally undemocratic policy has detrimental consequences on those whose votes are exploited. Either prisoners should be granted the right to vote — which I believe is the right thing to do — or they should not be counted for apportionment. It is immoral and undemocratic to count those who are denied the right to vote as citizens for district apportionment.
Elected officials are meant to serve their constituents and the public. The only mechanism by which constituents are able to ensure that their representatives are truly serving their interests is by voting them out. However, individuals who are counted in districts where they cannot vote do not have this ability. In fact, they are often served by representatives who advocate positions diametrically opposed to their own.
Imagine a district that includes a massive prison system run by a for-profit private prison corporation. In such a district the only voters would be the employees of the prison and of the corporation imprisoning the overwhelming majority of the district’s residents. The profiteers of the prisons would elect someone intended to represent the prisoners themselves. Yet clearly those voting would have drastically different interests to those whom the representative is meant to represent.
This is not just a hypothetical; in smaller districts, this is reality. In Anamosa, Iowa, a district with a massive prisoner population, only 58 people vote, despite there being 1,400 census-recorded residents. This means each voter in Anamosa has about 25 times more political clout than the typical American voter.
Allowing these districts with large prison populations to count their prisoners for political representation is the modern-day equivalent of the Three-Fifths Compromise. Though it is often rightfully lamented that slaves were only counted as three-fifths of a person, it is important to recall that it was the abolitionists who argued that slaves should not be counted in congressional apportionment and it was the slaveholders who pushed to count them.
Southerners wanted slaves to count so that they could inflate their representation in Congress. It was deemed unfair to count them as full people so they were only considered three-fifths of their white counterparts. We consider this to be incredibly heinous yet say nothing about the apportionment of the incarcerated who count as full people for purposes of allotting representation. In 1790, there were 700,000 slaves in America. None of them had the right to vote, yet three-fifths of them also had their votes stolen a second time because they were still counted in district apportionment. As of 2013, there were 2,220,300 incarcerated adults. Similarly, they do not have the right to vote, yet every single one of them has their vote stolen when they are counted in district apportionment. Just as the slaves were then represented by their slaveholders, prisoners today are often represented by the authors of the policies responsible for sending them to prison.
A manifestation of this problem that hits closer to home, albeit much less seriously, is that college students, too, are counted in districts in which they largely do not vote and often are served by politicians with interests very different from their own. We may take advantage of the incredibly progressive Cambridge, yet some schools with just as large a liberal student body are surrounded by conservative voters and politicians. And by counting the students as residents of those districts, they are exploited to advance an agenda that they do not have the power to resist.
Issues of district apportionment and who counts as being represented might not be as exciting as prison divestment or sentencing reform, but they are nonetheless critical to treating incarcerated people fairly and for our democracy to function properly. As we progress into election season and people continue to debate whom to vote for, it is important to remember that the system is rigged against those behind bars; they are unfairly barred from voting and deliberately misrepresented.
Jacob A. Fortinsky ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House.
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