By Danny Holt
In a democracy, citizens should be treated equally. A core tenet of this equality is universal suffrage — the right to vote for all. Yet, in America, the right to vote is occasionally revoked, especially for those convicted of felonies.
The numbers are staggering. As of July 2018, 6.1 million adult citizens were legally barred from voting because of a felony conviction. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow those incarcerated to vote. Most other states have a patchwork of laws returning the right to vote to people only after incarceration, parole, or probation. Some states with especially regressive systems even require the payment of fees and fines before the franchise is restored.
Felon disenfranchisement, in addition to being undemocratic, is a vestige of post-Civil War, Jim Crow-era policy decisions implemented to limit the political power of newly-freed black people. And true to their roots, these policies continue to affect minorities at a disproportionately high rate. African Americans, for example, are imprisoned at a rate more than 5 times that of whites and, according to a 2017 study, “people with felony convictions account for 8% of all adults and 33% of the African American adult male population.” Our criminal justice system is racially discriminatory and our democracy cannot follow suit. The year is 2019; it’s time to move beyond Jim Crow.
Expanding the franchise is more than just good democratic practice. The right to vote strengthens — and in some instances, serves to preserve — the connection between incarcerated people and their community, and it can ease the transition into post-prison life. To build and maintain a healthy democracy and society, this culture of equal political participation is paramount. One does not lose citizenship during incarceration. As such, people in prison need to be able to express themselves in our democracy, just like anyone else.
As Emancipation Initiative organizer Rachel Corey explains, incarcerated people “have a stake in what is happening in society, in their kids who are in the education system, in healthcare for their families. Folks in prison, against the correctional system’s desires, are still very connected to their communities.”
Some argue that felon disenfranchisement is a necessary penalty for violating the law. But this begs the question: Is incarceration not penalty enough? Does losing the ability of freedom of movement, and with it basic autonomy, not constitute a sufficient sentence? This month, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said that it “makes no sense” to limit voting rights based on felony convictions in addition to the penalty of incarceration.
Our carceral system, with the social, economic, and personal disruption it creates, already goes far beyond a proportional response. Our prison system facilitates the transfer of economic power from poor and minoritized incarcerated people to corporations through, among other things, a practice called “prison slavery” whereby incarcerated people are forced to labor for little to no payment. Some corporations even funnel “earnings” from this forced, unpaid labor into dark money operations to influence politics. The foundation of our democracy rests upon the importance of inalienable human rights. How can we then accept restrictions on those rights?
Democracy must be equal for all, not just a limited group. The suspension of the right to vote is a serious injury to one’s personhood in a democracy. Though many prefer to forget it, those in prison are still citizens, and our political system must treat them as such.
Thankfully, there is growing momentum to correct this injustice. Much of this energy comes from those most affected. Last summer, for example, there was a Prison Strike lasting 19 days. Incarcerated people across the country engaged in work stoppages, hunger strikes, and commissary boycotts. Among their demands: “The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called ‘ex-felons.” “Representation is demanded,” they explained. “All voices count.”
This activism has been accompanied by legislative campaigns across the nation, most notably in Florida. There, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, an organization run by formerly incarcerated activists, ran a ballot initiative campaign to restore voting rights after incarceration, parole, and probation. In a feat that stunned the nation, the measure, intended to enfranchise up to 1.4 million people, passed with 64.5% of the vote. That’s the largest expansion of the franchise since the Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to eighteen.
More recently, Colorado followed suit, passing a law allowing people on parole to vote. Though a minor reform — there were roughly 9,000 Coloradans disenfranchised while on parole in 2016 — this was a step in the right direction. And, the day after the Colorado bill was signed, Nevada approved a law that gives the right to vote to people after incarceration. As a result, approximately 75,000 Nevadans — more than 3% of the voting-age population — will be enfranchised for the 2020 elections. These laws build off the progress made by Louisiana in 2018. There, the Republican-controlled state house granted the right to vote to those who have been out of prison for five years but are still on probation or parole. Though they haven’t yet won legislative victory, activists and legislators in New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Hawaii are also making progress in the fight to end felon disenfranchisement.
Unfortunately, accompanying the progress has been some backlash. In early May 2019, the Florida legislature passed (and the governor later signed) a bill that guts the 2018 ballot initiative. Under the new law, formerly incarcerated people must pay all financial obligations (fines, fees, and restitution) before regaining voting rights. This financial burden presents a serious obstacle for many formerly incarcerated potential voters. Coral Nichols, for example, who spent more than four years in prison and nearly 10 years on probation without a violation, owes $190,000. As the head of a nonprofit serving people suffering from addiction, there is virtually no chance she will ever get to vote again.
Democracy only for those who can pay is no democracy at all. Instead, it’s an election system with a poll tax.
In spite of the backlash, there is no question that the political winds on felon disenfranchisement have shifted for the better. Even presidential candidates are joining the fight. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders argued at a CNN town hall for a full end to felon disenfranchisement. “If you are an American citizen,” he later explained, “whether you’re rich, whether you’re poor, whether you’re black, whether you’re white, whether you are a really wonderful person or not such a nice person, but because you are an American citizen you have the inalienable right to vote.” This marked the first time in modern history that a major figure in American politics has advocated for a complete end to felon disenfranchisement. The rest of the Democratic field, though refusing to endorse full enfranchisement, did echo that the right to vote should be returned after incarceration, marking another major step in the fight for equal citizenship.
Ultimately, the fight against felon disenfranchisement will not be easy, but for the first time in generations, we are making massive strides. People are organizing to change the conversation and break these racist, anti-democratic barriers — and winning — and that is reason to be hopeful.
Danny Holt is an Equal Citizens Fellow and a rising junior at Wesleyan University.