Should Americans locked up in prison lose their right to vote? Absolutely not.
The right to vote is an essential component of any democracy.
As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “Once you start chipping away and you say, that person committed a terrible crime, not gonna let him vote… you’re running down a slippery slope.”
Sanders is right. One look at Florida’s perpetual bid to disenfranchise formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions is proof.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also supports granting incarcerated folks the right to vote.
“Black Americans and people of color are far more likely to be convicted and sentenced longer than White Americans for similar crimes,” the congresswoman said.
Republicans, by contrast, have raised the idea of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or racist murderer Dylan Roof voting as a way of shooting down the entire discussion.
Ocasio-Cortez slammed that argument.
“Instead of asking, ‘Should the Boston Bomber have the right to vote?’” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Try, ‘Should a nonviolent person stopped with a dime bag LOSE the right to vote?’”
“That question reflects WAY more people,” she added.
Using one or two occurrences of something to justify condemning over 2 million people is always unsound logic. It’s especially malicious, and calculated, in this instance.
All but two states, Vermont and Maine, bar incarcerated people from voting. Twenty-two other states, to varying degrees, restrict voting during parole or probation.
But big changes are on the horizon.
The District of Columbia made waves recently when City Council member Robert C. White, Jr. announced the District would be considering legislation to repeal language in a 1955 law that disenfranchises D.C. residents upon felony convictions.
The move would be monumental for the voting rights community, and for African Americans, in particular. Black people in America, after all, are disproportionately criminalized, and thus, disproportionately impacted by disenfranchisement laws.
If D.C. winds up granting incarcerated people the right to vote, it could serve as one tool in a larger set for states across the country looking for ways to show their governments are serious about addressing racism in our criminal legal system.
More than likely, however, few states will adopt the District’s framework.
How do I know this?
You know the Dunkin Donuts slogan, “America runs on Dunkin?”
Well, the American criminal legal system runs on retribution and punishment.
Twelve states ban people with felonies from voting for a time even after their release — and in Kentucky and Iowa, permanently. Virginia bans them permanently too, but the state’s governor has been automatically restoring voting rights to people who complete their sentences.
The impact of disenfranchisement through criminalization on our democracy is striking.
One in 10 Kentuckians can never vote again due to a felony conviction. For Black Kentuckians, the rate of permanent felony disenfranchisement is even greater, at one in four.
It’s not hard to understand why Republicans want to keep it this way. Thanks to a racially biased legal system, Black and Latinx adults are much more likely to be convicted of felonies. They’re also much more likely to vote for Democrats.
Republicans know this. That’s why they’re working double-time to erect new barriers to the ballot box after a super-majority of Floridians voted to re-enfranchise 1.5 million folks with prior felony convictions — including 1 out of 5 Black Floridians.
The gamesmanship gets even more perverse when you consider the Census, which counts people locked up in prisons as residents of the areas where they’re confined.
That inflates the populations of Republican-leaning small towns and rural areas where most state prisons are located. That means more federal money and more legislative seats, even though the people incarcerated in those towns can’t vote for who holds them. It’s yet another mechanism by which the votes of White Americans are weighted more heavily than their non-White peers.
Forbidding people in prison from voting, disenfranchising them after release, and counting them as residents where they’re imprisoned are all components of prison gerrymandering.
It looks and smells a lot like the 3/5 compromise — an old constitutional practice allowing Southern states to count three-fifths of their enslaved population when apportioning House seats, Electoral College votes, and federal funding.
For too long, the incarcerated have been an easy punching bag for politicians. Voting should be an inalienable right — even for people in prison, and especially for those who’ve served their time. No amount of ‘Willie Hortonism’ scare tactics should ruin it for the lot.
Mass incarceration is now a bipartisan concern. Its effects on our democracy should be too. And if that’s a problem because it could swing a few elections, the problem isn’t the people locked up in prison — it’s the system that locks up an entire voting bloc because it’s politically expedient.
This op-ed was updated from an earlier version written for OtherWords.org. OtherWords is a free editorial service published by the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank.