Dominic Grieve, the former Shadow Attorney General of England and Wales, stated,”If convicted rapists and murderers are given the vote it will bring the law into disrepute and many people will see it as making a mockery of justice.”
Prisoners voting? Wouldn’t that destroy our democracy as we know it? Goodbye sane leaders. Hello chainsaw-loving, tyrannical dictators!
Funny, right? This idea that the incarcerated can have the power to obliterate our representative government if they were able to vote. Although this sounds crazy, the practice of prisoner disenfranchisement has been around for centuries.
This concept came from Ancient Greece and Rome through a process known as “civil death.” This included the loss of property rights, the right to a jury, ban on signing contracts, and voting rights. The concept of “civil death” was brought to America by English colonists, however, they abolished almost every punishment on that list except loss of voting rights.
In the wake of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed African American men the right to vote, state felony bans exploded in number. This was observed along with the finding that states with larger African American populations were more likely to pass laws that permanently denied convicts the right to vote.
Voting rights for those in prison have been greatly limited to today where only Maine and Vermont give their prisoners the right to cast a ballot.
What’s funny about this topic though is the idea that when people are in prison, they’re no longer people. In other words, when they commit a crime, they give up all the rights that our nation was built on. The debate of prisoner enfranchisement is literally based on whether or not people, human beings, should still have rights when incarcerated.
Right vs. privilege
Although some believe prisoners should be punished by losing their right to vote, they are still citizens of our country and human beings. Albert Trop, a natural-born citizen, was serving in the army when he deserted from an Army stockade in Morocco. The next day, he surrendered to an army officer and was taken back to base. He was dishonorably discharged and found guilty in a military court.
When he attempted to apply for a passport eight years later, he was denied because of the Nationality Act of 1940, which stated that members of the armed forces who deserted their base and had a dishonorable discharge would lose their citizenship. However, Trop argued that he was still a citizen. This case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, and in the decision of Trop v. Dulles, the justices stated that “citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior” and “denationalization as a punishment is barred by the Eighth Amendment.”
If citizenship doesn’t expire when one commits a crime, shouldn’t they be allowed to exercise the most basic right of being a citizen: voting? Implying that prisoners cannot exercise one of their fundamental rights is implying they aren’t actual citizens, and they aren’t actual humans. This will make it harder for them to reintegrate into civilization and make them more likely to commit a crime again.
If we are continuing to tell prisoners that they aren’t actually part of our society, why would they care to follow the laws of a society that they live in but aren’t actually part of?
“A privilege is earned or given while a right is inherent, and guaranteed no matter what.” This is one of the response given when I asked a fellow high schooler to differentiate those two words. If this is how you view privilege, then it’s understandable as to why you consider voting as a privilege instead of a right and believe it can be taken away from prisoners. This is known as Rights Forfeiture Theory. According to Christopher Heath Wellman, the theory means that one “contends that punishment is justified when and because the criminal has forfeited her right not to be subjected to this hard treatment.” Basically, once someone breaks the law, they lose their rights because they didn’t follow the law.
However, using this theory to defend the disenfranchisement of prisoners is outright idiotic. The reason the right of liberty is limited in prisons is in order to protect that prisoner from committing a crime again and hurting others around him. We wouldn’t allow a prisoner to have a gun because it can harm public safety, but an act of civic duty is encouraged among all citizens and should be applied to prisoners as well.
Some have argued that a vote can be as dangerous as a gun. Really? A weapon that can kill someone is as dangerous as a vote? There is no other way to debunk this besides saying it’s a false analogy. In addition, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, passed by the U.S. Congress, stated: “The Congress finds that the right of citizens of the United States to vote is a fundamental right.” Therefore, there is no justifiable claim that voting is a privilege, based on Congress’ view of our fundamental rights. It has been repeatedly stated that voting is a right, not a privilege.
What is democracy anyways?
Democracy: a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
Oh hey!! We have one of those! Well… kind of.
It’s pretty ironic that a country based on the voice of the people is unwilling to let a million of them have a say in an election that will directly impact them. One of the most serious problems within the incarceration system is overcrowding.
According to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, an inmate “needlessly dies every six or seven days,” due to overcrowding in California.
According to a study from Portland State University in 2003, correctional officer maltreatment skyrocketed as prison misconduct saw an uprising due to overcrowding. Since guards were tired of breaking up a multitude of fights due to “crossed territory,” a lack of patience on their part led to improper methods of dealing with prison fighting.
In the 2016 California ballot alone, there were three propositions concerning the conviction of criminals and the extent of their punishment. If prisoners were allowed to vote, they would have the opportunity to advocate for themselves.
Giving prisoners the right to vote would give the people in prisons the chance to change the conditions and treatments that they are living in with a sense of understanding that non-prisoner voters don’t have. We read about the conditions of prisons on the news, but we don’t actually know what it is like to be in one of them. If they were allowed to vote, they could vote for improvements that would enable prisons to at least be livable.
As previously stated, the only two states that allow prisoners to vote are Maine and Vermont. Massachusetts used to allow the incarcerated to submit a ballot, but they decided to reverse this act of freedom in November of 2000.
According to the Howard Law Journal, Massachusetts did not do this because the prisoners were rioting, but because some inmates decided to form a political action committee to make their wants for a better incarceration system more known to the state. It is not only unfair to the prisoners who lost their voice, but unfair to the public since electors are undermining what our democracy actually is.
In addition, this shows that prisoners are not being heard with the complaints of their living conditions, and if they were able to vote, they could have a more powerful voice and get their congressman/senator to listen to them. They are not represented in Congress or the Senate, and they tend to be an ignored population of the United States. However, they are still citizens who have the right to be heard by their country’s leaders. How are we able to fix these issues when they have no representation in the laws that are created?
Can prisoners strongly impact elections?
According to Quartz Media, in the 2000 election, Al Gore won popular vote by 537 votes, but George W. Bush still won the presidency through the electoral college vote. At the time, Florida had around 71,000 prisoners at this time according to the Bureau of Prisons. According to Sasha Abramsky, a senior fellow for Democracy at the Demos Foundation, if 5% of those prisoners went out to vote and they were split 60-40 in Al Gore’s favor, the 2000 president-elect would’ve been Al Gore.
Prisoners are also counted in the U.S. Census and impact the amount of representatives each state gets along with the number of electoral votes. One way this is used against our democracy is through the process of prison gerrymandering. This is the process of redrawing district lines to include prisons to give states more population leading to more power. This concept is meant to increase the statesman’s population and give him more representation in state and federal government, without giving those in prison a vote so it won’t negatively affect him if they decide to vote for other people.
This large section of prisoners in small districts are not allowed to participate in local elections and have a say in their representatives though. According to Prison Policy Initiative, in Anamosa, Iowa, a man won a city council seat with only two votes. His wife and his neighbors were the only ones who voted for him and he wasn’t even an actual candidate. The mayor reached out to him and asked if he would be willing to take the seat since there were no other candidates, and he accepted.
The census counted around 5,500 people in Anamosa, around 1,374 people per district. The problem wasn’t the lack of interest; it was the lack of voters. There were 1,321 prisoners there at the time, which meant that 96% of the district couldn’t vote. Each of the other districts had around 25 times the amount of real residents as this one, so if you lived in the district that held this prison, your vote would be 25 time as powerful.
“There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral. It is wrong — deadly wrong — to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of state’s rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.”
Eloquently said by Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voting rights is an issue that cannot be ignored or put off any longer.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 states that voting restrictions that have a discriminatory impact violate the law. The act banned the use of literacy tests, reinforcing the Fifteenth Amendment which gave African Americans the right to vote. Many have argued that because felon voting laws disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, this violates the Voting Rights Act, which was passed to ensure that all people regardless of race and social background have the equal opportunity to take part in our democracy.
How can you help?
The government may not be doing anything about this, but you can.
In the end, prisoners cannot change this. They do not have a voice, so we have to be the ones to do something about this. Sign a petition, contact your local representative, next time someone says prisoners shouldn’t be enfranchised, change their mind! Even simple awareness about this issue has the power to make a difference.
Prisoners are not making a “mockery of justice”: the electors are.