Time to Get Out the Vote for People Behind Bars

Dianna Houenou, New Leaders Council New Jersey

Part eighteen of The New Leader series The Arc of Justice: Examining the Failures of the Criminal Justice System and the Hope of Progressive Reforms.

No matter who you are, what you look like, or your faith, we all share certain values. We all want to be treated humanely, with dignity and respect. We all want to be counted and valued. And we all want to be able to have a say in the decisions that affect our daily lives.

The right to vote is a powerful embodiment of those values. By voting, we demand to be counted and to be a part of the decisions our government makes. Voting is a tenet enshrined in the United States Constitution and engrained in the American spirit.

But this nation denies those things to nearly 5 million people based on criminal convictions, primarily felony convictions. It’s time to end felony disenfranchisement.

Felony disenfranchisement, the practice of taking away someone’s right to vote because of a felony conviction, exists in almost every state in some form. Many states require people to have completely finished incarceration, parole, and probation before allowing them to re-register to vote. Some states only allow those on probation and/or parole to vote. Kentucky, Iowa, and, until recently, Florida permanentlydisenfranchise people for a single felony. Only two states never take away the right to vote: Maine and Vermont.

Felony disenfranchisement impacts a significant portion of the voting-age population. According to a 2016 national study, 16 states disenfranchised at least 2% of their total voting-age population. More than 3 out of 4 people criminally disenfranchised are living in their communities, either having completed their sentence or under probation or parole supervision.

When elections are sometimes decided by razor-thin margins (who could forget the 2000 presidential election that was decided by 537 Florida votes?), every vote is critical. Particularly in local elections, winners are sometimes decided by a few dozen votes.

While felony disenfranchisement touches people of all races and ethnicities, racial bias in the criminal justice system combines with disenfranchisement to disproportionately strip voting rights away from communities of color. There are disparities in who gets stopped and arrested by police, who gets charged by prosecutors, who gets convicted, and who gets incarcerated. For example, a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that black people nationwide are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate nearly four times higher than white people, despite similar usage rates. In 2016 The Sentencing Project released a report highlighting that black and Latinx people across the country are disproportionately incarcerated compared to white people.

The effect these disparities have on voting rights is palpable. Between 1980 and 2016, the number of states that disenfranchised at least 5% of their black voting-age population more than doubled from 9 to 23 states. As of 2016, more than 7% of black people of voting age in the U.S. were disenfranchised, a total of approximately 2.2 million people. That’s four times higher than the rate for non-blacks. Four states — Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia — disenfranchised at least 20% of their black voting-age population.

But ending criminal disenfranchisement doesn’t just affect voting numbers and, potentially, election outcomes. Allowing people with convictions to vote can have significant impacts on reentry and civic engagement. Directly-impacted people have publicly expressed how the criminal justice system does a thorough job of making them feel worthless and unwanted. They describe the pain of being denied having a say in the decisions that impact their lives and the lives of their loved ones. For them, being able to vote amounts to feeling valued and offers a sense of belonging in their communities.

Disenfranchisement serves no direct crime prevention purpose, and excluding people from participating in civic discourse and the political process runs counter to rehabilitative goals of the criminal justice system.

People with convictions have varied political views, just like everyone else, and preventing people from voting based on assumptions about how they might vote is flatly unconstitutional.

The chance to promote generational voting participation is at also stake. Evidence shows that lifelong voting habits are shaped in childhood. Watching your parents vote and having political discussions at home significantly influence how young people view voting participation.

I’m often asked, “Why should we let incarcerated people vote? I can understand letting people on probation and parole vote, but why people in prison?” The answer is simple: People in prison are not significantly different from people on probation and parole; they are impacted by decisions made outside prison walls just as much as — if not more than — people who aren’t incarcerated. Their access to education, healthcare, and visitation is at the mercy of legislators and corrections officials. Their children are subject to the decisions of the local school board. Their family members have to be able to get jobs. When an incarcerated person is released, he or she must live with decisions surrounding economics, housing, and healthcare, that were made during their time in prison.

Politicians and activists across the country have been pushing for voting rights restoration for many years. More recently, the movement has increasingly gained national bi-partisan momentum.

In 2016, the Maryland legislature, through a veto override, enacted a law to restore voting rights to people upon release from prison. That same year, California allowed people serving felony sentences in county jails to vote (but not those in state or federal prison). In 2017, Alabama reduced the number of offenses used to disqualify people from voting, thereby increasing the number of people allowed to vote. During the November 2018 midterm elections, Florida — notorious for its harsh lifetime disenfranchisement laws — voted to amend its state constitution to restore voting rights to more than 1.4 million people on probation and parole.

Currently, advocates in California, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and elsewhere are each working to support state legislation that would end criminal disenfranchisement entirely.

Notwithstanding the tremendous recent victories (and those still to come), voter restoration campaigns are only one piece of the larger, ongoing GOTV (get out the vote) effort. Additional reforms are still needed to ensure a true participatory democracy. We must end gerrymandering, including prison-based gerrymandering, under which incarcerated people are counted as residents of the district where they’re incarcerated rather than the district they call home. We must implement early in-person voting and absentee voting in every state. And we must simplify voter registration processes and make them accessible to all who are eligible to vote.

Governments should be implementing policies that expandthe number of people eligible to vote, not reduce it. It’s time that the right to vote be treated like the fundamental right that it is. That means it must never be taken away.

Dianna Houenou, Esq, is policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. Her work primarily focuses on advancing racial and social justice through police reform, marijuana legalization, and voting rights restoration.