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Locked out of the voting booth

<h6>Dwight Burdette/Wikimedia Commons</h6>
Dwight Burdette/Wikimedia Commons

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Extend this further, and you can also measure the justice of a society by how it treats those who have been previously incarcerated. America fails both measures on many fronts, but one realm which lays bare the unconscionable injustice of our legal system is voting rights. 

Tens of millions of Americans have already exercised their right to vote in this election; many more will over the next few days. Through submitting ballots by mail, waiting in lines for hours, and convincing friends and family to go to the polls, people are getting out the vote in record numbers. But one important constituency will be silenced: people currently and formerly incarcerated.

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The Sentencing Project recently found that 5.2 million Americans, 2.3 percent of the voting public, have been disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. Almost half of those disenfranchised are people who have completed their sentence. Moreover, this disenfranchisement disproportionately affects Black Americans: 6.2 percent of the adult Black population — one in 16 Black adults — cannot vote due to incarceration.

America’s unique punitiveness is well-established. Accounting for 5 percent of the world’s population, our country houses 25 percent of incarcerated people worldwide. The legal system also disproportionately affects Black Americans, and reinscribes the racist and classist structures that shape our larger society.

But incarceration is more than a specific response to an illegal action — in America, one’s carceral status affects their entire life. For example, formerly incarcerated people have more difficulty accessing employment, housing, and education.

The shadow of incarceration is long, but there is one mechanism we are taught to hail as the means of shifting the political terrain, a first step to making change possible across the many aspects of our lives: voting. So why is this right — enshrined in our most sacred documents and elevated as our most fundamental freedom — contingent on a system that is so deeply flawed? Why do we strip those with the most to gain and the most to lose from political decisions of their right to have a voice? By excluding currently and formerly incarcerated people from voting, we compound the injustice they face and further entrench their silencing. We ensure that there is no political will to change the circumstances that led to their imprisonment, marred their experience, and limited their success afterward. In other words, we increase the likelihood that nothing will change.

The coronavirus pandemic exemplifies the urgent necessity of allowing those in the carceral system to have a political voice. While America’s response to the pandemic has been a failure across the board, it has especially affected incarcerated people. As is so often the case, people in prisons and jails are lowest on the list of political priorities, and their safety is the last thing their captors consider. Nationwide, more than 252,000 people in prisons and jails have been infected with the virus, while 1,450 inmates and staff have died. Close quarters, lack of resources, and denial of adequate care have made prisons and jails uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus — as of September, they accounted for 90 of the top 100 outbreak clusters in the United States. Elected officials have not done enough to contain the spread; there simply isn’t the political will or the political pressure for them to act. As in so many areas of American political life, incarcerated people are an afterthought, set aside for more pressing political concerns.

It is a calculus that is intuitive for other political issues. If politicians know they are accountable to a group of people, they are more likely to respond to their concerns. Block a demographic from voting, and you do not have to do so (though, if this were the empathetic democracy it ought to be, politicians would do what is right regardless of whether someone voted for them). This is the same logic that drives Republican voter suppression — build up rules that allow for minority rule, and you don’t have to respond to the majority’s policy preferences.

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A common counterargument is that incarcerated people forfeited their rights when they violated the law. Set aside the fact that who commits and is incarcerated for crime is heavily influenced by larger structures of inequity. We already include incarcerated people in American politics — just in ways that deny them agency. People in prison are counted in the census in the places where they are incarcerated, but not in their home areas. This means that fewer resources go to their home communities, and more resources go to the location of their prison. Thus, incarcerated people are counted, but denied a voice; they are exploited for everyone’s political gain except their own.

Moreover, if you truly believe that incarcerated people are inherently flawed as human beings because they were convicted of a crime, then what is the best way to address that? To deny them of all their rights, siphon them away from all sense of community, and deny them any chance to learn, grow, and change? What happens when they are released from prison? Is it not better to maintain their connection to the outside society, to feel a part of a larger community, so that they can better re-enter society after their sentence?

Let people in prison vote for the same reason we tell our kids, our friends, and our parents to vote: Voting instills a sense of civic responsibility, and gives people the space to think beyond themselves. It lets you transfer your individual concerns into positive change and collective needs. Above all else, exercising your fundamental right as a citizen of a democracy affirms your humanity and agency.

There is no logical reason to deny people in prison the right to vote, except as retributive punishment. And the last thing we need in our carceral system is more retribution. Any such argument completely falls apart when you consider people who have completed their sentences. 

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Addressing this injustice, however, like most aspects of voting in America, varies widely from state to state. As of now, only Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., allow people in prison to vote. The rest restore that right sometime after incarceration.

There are states that are already attempting to roll back disenfranchisement. In 2018, 64 percent of Florida voters passed Amendment 4, a ballot measure to enfranchise the 1.4 million people in the state — and one in five Black Floridians — who were disenfranchised due to a prior felony conviction. Instead of honoring that overwhelming vote, in a move that ties together the stories of felon disenfranchisement and voter suppression, Republicans in the state have essentially imposed a poll tax, stipulating that returning citizens could only vote if they paid the fines and fees to the count — but they refuse to tell people what they owe.

This year, disenfranchisement is also on the ballot in California. If passed, Proposition 17 would restore the right to vote to 50,000 residents on parole from a felony conviction.

Wherever you are this semester, check your ballot to see what measures impact criminal justice in your state. Whether disenfranchisement, marijuana legalization (including in New Jersey), police reforms, or sheriff and district attorney races, expanding justice and equity is at stake in elections across the country this November. As long as people caught up in the carceral system cannot speak for themselves, it is incumbent upon those of us who can to ensure that we establish as fair a system as possible. Then, on Nov. 4, we get to work advancing even further.

Julia Chaffers is a junior in the history department from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at chaffers@princeton.edu.

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