The Case for Felon Voting
A Democracy is “a form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their governing legislation.” The United States employs a specific type of democracy, representative democracy, to achieve these goals. It seems as though elections are constantly taking place for all types of office. Cheap plastic yard signs can be seen all over, advertising different candidates, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some whose names are obscure to most. All candidates have means of reaching out to voters. Local politicians may walk around ringing doorbells, while candidates who are running for positions with larger constituencies schedule large rallies and do more with online advertising. The goal is to make everyone feel involved. Fortunately, there are very few limits on who can vote in the US.
There are only a handful of requirements: You must be a US citizen above the age of 18. You must meet residency requirements in the state you wish to vote in, but those are not difficult to meet, as you don’t need to have a permanent residence in the state. There is one final element that varies from state to state but is generally present in some form for most: your felony conviction status. In two states, Maine and Vermont, there is no such element. In thirty-four states, even after release from prison, felons do not have their voting rights restored. The other fourteen states all have requirements that fall somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum.
Given all of the states’ voting requirements, it is estimated that there are 6.1 million felons prohibited from voting. This should not be the case. When somebody is convicted of a felony, they are convicted under statutes that are conceived by politicians--politicians who are supposed to be elected through a democratic process. Politicians are humans, and their judgments are inherently subjective. If a statute is passed that punishes certain conduct as a felony, that does not necessarily mean that the crime is immoral. Morality is a construct determined by society, which needs to include everyone.
For example, almost a third of all felony convictions in the United States are for nonviolent drug offenses. Since these offenders are restricted from voting in most states, they are not able to participate in the democratic processes that created the laws that landed them into prison in the first place. However, the acceptability of certain substances is an issue which society continuously grapples with; it is by no means set in stone. During prohibition, possession of alcohol was punishable by prison time, but now, most adults drink freely. While recreational Fentanyl use is frowned upon and illegal now, who knows what laws in the next century will look like.
Additionally, felons have crucial perspectives that go unheard when they are restricted from voting. Prison is meant to be an unappealing place, as it is supposed to serve as a deterrent to crime and recidivism. But it also must be humane. A prison sentence is a sentence for detention by the state; it is not a sentence for overcrowding, healthcare deprivation, violence, and sexual assault. Unfortunately, this is what it has become for many inmates. 19% of male inmates claim that they have been assaulted by other inmates, and 21% claim that they have been assaulted by correctional officers. The American prison system is currently operating at 103.9% capacity. If felons could vote, politicians would inevitably care more about these issues, and rightfully so. Every American citizen who cares about an issue has a vote to give to a politician who also cares about that issue, except felons. It is no surprise, therefore, that prison reform has long been neglected.
95% of prisoners will eventually go home. When they do, it is in the best interests of society that they lead productive and crime-free lives. Housing and employment are both critical for reintegration into a community, but so is active community engagement. Community engagement often takes the form of voting, which is why it’s such a shame that there are many states where even upon release, felons can not vote. “Here,” we say. “You’re out of prison, now act like a model citizen and stay out of trouble.” But if we want felons to abide by these words, we should grant them the prerogatives that their fellow citizens enjoy. When there is a difference between the rights of a felon who has served his time and the rights of his neighbors, the felon is only further alienated.
For the sake of democracy, let’s let felons vote. Truly moral laws cannot be determined when a whole population implicated by these laws is silenced. For the sake of prison reform, let’s let felons vote. It’s an issue that we all claim to care about, but the change has been slow. And for the sake of community reintegration, let’s let felons vote. When you do the crime, you do the time, but you shouldn’t have to do more. In a true democracy, everybody can vote.