The discussion surrounding people in prisons and their right to vote was recently raised during the Democratic candidates’ Town Halls as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders stated his belief that all people, including those who are incarcerated, should have the right to vote. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and California Senator Kamala Harris all took the opposing position that disenfranchisement is okay when people are in prison, but their voting rights should be restored after release. While I still haven’t chosen my Democratic candidate yet (however it’s a definite hell no to Buttigieg, Harris, Booker, O’Rourke, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar), I strongly agree with Bernie in universal suffrage and that all people in prisons should have the inalienable right to vote.
Voting is one of the most crucial aspects of American democracy, granted to people as explained in the 15th Amendment, which states, “Citizens cannot be denied the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” People in prisons are still considered citizens of the United States who (technically) obtain civil rights such as the freedom to organize and protest violence and harmful conditions, to worship, and some levels of speech. By taking away the important right to vote, the government is continuing to treat incarcerated people like they are less than human with few rights that allow them to actively participate in the democracy in which they live. This disenfranchisement is rooted in slavery as the criminal justice system disproportionately criminalizes and locks up Black and Brown people, despite the fact that they commit crimes on the same level as white people. Despite the idea that slavery ended with the 13th Amendment, the document actually states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” continuing the existence of slavery in the form of prison sentencing. Because Black men are six times more likely to be locked up than white men and Black women are two times more likely to be locked up than white women, it’s easy to see how the criminal justice system isn’t broken, but in fact, is working exactly how it was created. Black and Hispanic citizens only account for 37% of America’s population, yet they make up 67% of the prison population. Lawmakers who strip these citizens of their rights to vote are continuing the cycle of racist oppression in which communities of color are over policed, criminalized, and incarcerated for crimes that white people are committing on a similar level. Taking away this crucial right allows politicians to keep Black, Brown, and poor people oppressed despite the majority of the prison population incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
Around 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated, 10 million are cycled through both the prison and jail systems, and 4.5 million people are on probation or parole each year. Most states take away people’s rights to vote after they are released from prison as well, keeping them at a level below rightful citizenship and removing their voices in the political system. Despite this fact, all people in prisons are counted in the populations of their allocated rural districts (which tend to end up on the conservative side), so their lives are being used to gerrymander the counties and cities in which they are incarcerated to favor Republicans. Giving incarcerated people the right to vote will combat both the widespread disenfranchisement of minority groups and the unfair practice of allowing bodies to be used as tools to further one political party’s ideas. They also deserve the right in order to have a voice in who makes the decisions that directly affect them. Politicians on both sides have shown their blatant disregard of people in prisons and their human rights because they don’t see them as human beings and citizens of the United States. Letting incarcerated people vote will keep politicians accountable for how they care for their constituents that are the most vulnerable to civil rights violations and will also give the former an incentive to practice their legal rights as they prepare for their release back into society.
The terms ‘illegal’ and ‘crime’ are determined not by their definitions but by who makes the laws that prosecute these infractions. Countless cases have revealed the ways that rich white people escape the system and never step foot in a jail or prison, despite committing offenses that would have a Black or Brown person incarcerated for decades. For example, Crystal Mason, a Black woman in Texas, was sentenced to five years in prison for voting ‘illegally’ despite not knowing that voting after committing a felony in the past was against Texas’ law. In another case, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp ran for office in 2018 while holding the position of Georgia’s Secretary of State, and official documents showed that Kemp purged 1.4 million residents from the rolls, held up tens of thousands of voter registration applications from Black citizens, and closed over 200 polling locations, all impacting a majority of the Black residents in the state. Kemp has faced no punishments for his actions and he
won (stole) the gubernatorial election. Another noteworthy example is how Black people are disproportionately incarcerated for marijuana use and possession despite the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which showed that black and white people use marijuana “at similar rates,” and many rich white people now sell the drug to make profits or boast about using it on large platforms while they never face prison time. Giving people in prisons the right to vote would hopefully force the government to examine these disparities in incarceration based on both racial and economic factors.
People in prisons should have the right to vote during and after incarceration, no matter what their crimes. The right to vote is critical to what it means to be an American citizen and restricting a vast population of Americans from exercising their right does more harm than good. I hope that more Democratic candidates adopt Bernie’s belief in universal suffrage for the good of incarcerated citizens and for the good of the country.