BY CHLOE JENSEN ’20
This November, Democrats have the chance to vote out the Republican majority in Congress. For many liberals, this is an important opportunity to elect officials who will overturn many of the policies that Republican lawmakers have passed and replace them with their own more progressive legislation. An unrepresented voice in these elections will be inmates and former inmates, many of whom are affected by these very policies.
Throughout the country, many current and former convicted felons face strong restrictions against exercising their democratic right to vote. Only two states, Vermont and Maine, allow inmates to vote while they are incarcerated, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the other 48 states, convicted felons cannot participate in elections while they are serving time, and often, they still cannot participate after they are released and once they finish parole or probation. Only 14 states restore felons’ voting rights immediately after release.
In some states, like Florida, felons lose their vote indefinitely and must appeal to a state board for their voting rights to be restored. Thanks to 2011 legislation by Rick Scott, Floridians must wait for 7 years after their sentence before they can even appeal. Although many state governments are working to give former inmates the right to vote, such as in New York and Virginia, most incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are simply disregarded when it comes time to pass laws and elect local officials.
For Joseph Jackson, an inmate in Maine, his ability to vote is incredibly important because “having some sense of community and being part of society is really necessary.” When inmates are serving their sentences, their lives and the lives of their community members do not stop. For many, including Jackson, voting gives them a chance to prove that they care.
Furthermore, restricting current and former inmates from voting is another way for elected officials to disregard low income communities of color. Because of the demographic of incarcerated people, inmate voting restrictions often contribute to the disenfranchisement of black and Latinx voters. Black people make up nearly 38 percent of the U.S. prison population, but only 14 percent of the total population, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. According to the Sentencing Project, thanks to this disparity in the prison system, one of every 13 African Americans have lost their voting rights — as opposed to one in 56 non-black Americans. Meanwhile, according to the Pew Research Center, Hispanic people make up 23 percent of the prison population and only 16 percent of the total population.
With issues like voter ID laws and long poll lines plaguing many communities of color, restrictions on the voting rights of prison populations are yet another barrier that keep people of color from exercising their right to vote. In a country where voters of color have historically been restricted from voting, race is absolutely a key factor at play in regards to restricting inmates and former inmates from voting.
The 15th Amendment granted all natural-born citizens the right to vote in the U.S. regardless of their race or color. The Constitution allows states to adopt their own rules regarding disenfranchisement for crimes, meaning states are allowed to give inmates the right to vote, even while serving their sentences. By restricting and, in many cases, outright eliminating the voting rights of so many Americans, lawmakers are further violating this constitutional right. Allowing inmates to vote would not only give them the opportunity to participate in their communities, but also help counter the disenfranchisement that many black and Latinx people face.