Should felons be allowed to vote while in jail? | The Tylt
Presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have taken very different stances on whether currently incarcerated people should be allowed to vote while in prison. Supporters of barring incarcerated people from voting—a practice known as "disenfranchisement"—believe voting is a privilege that must be earned. Buttigieg believes that certain rights, like voting, are revoked while serving out a sentence. Sanders, however, believes voting is an inalienable right of all Americans. What do you think?
Should felons be allowed to vote while in jail?
Denying the right to vote to incarcerated and previously incarcerated citizens has its roots in post–Civil War lawmaking. In a 2018 piece on Virginia's push to restore civil rights to convicted felons, The Atlantic explains the racist history of disenfranchisement policies.
At the turn of the 20th century, with a white backlash fueling the dominance of a Redeemer government that took power after Reconstruction, white-supremacist politicians began to craft the laws that constituted both the beginnings of a state-codified carceral system, and the bedrock of Jim Crow that was the disenfranchisement of Negroes. To get around the obstacle of the 14th Amendment’s prohibition of explicitly discriminatory laws, the crafters of the state constitution relied on the criminalization of blackness and the penalty of “civil death” as one particularly effective way to ensnare black citizens in the dragnet of disenfranchisement.
“I told the people of my county before they sent me here that I intended,” delegate R.L. Gordon said, “as far as in me lay, to disenfranchise every negro that I could disenfranchise under the Constitution of the United States, and as few white people as possible.”
Such policies were not initially created as a natural punishment for breaking laws—they specifically targeted people of color.
Citizens charged with crimes frequently have their rights stripped from them, often without a simple path to regain them after serving their time. In a piece explaining Florida's 2018 Constitutional amendment, The Intercept explains:
Nationwide, more than 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to a felony conviction. According to the Sentencing Project, more than half have fully completed their sentences, another quarter are under probation or parole, and another quarter are still in prison. While 1 out of every 40 U.S. adults is barred from voting due to a former or current felony conviction, one in 13 African-American adults is disenfranchised.
Florida's system for clemency has been mostly unchanged since the 1880s, but it grew even stricter in 2011, when newly elected Republican Gov. Rick Scott issued new rules requiring citizens with a felony conviction to wait at least five years before filing for clemency, including the restoration of voting rights — a process that often takes a decade or more.
Nearly five years after taking office, Scott had issued clemency to fewer than 2,000 Florida citizens, while over 20,000 applications remained pending. The number of disenfranchised Floridians has meanwhile continued to grow. Between 2010 and 2016, nearly 150,000 more were disenfranchised, bringing the total to about 1.7 million, according to the Sentencing Project.
Proponents of felon disenfranchisement say it is an important part of punishing criminals, arguing that voting is a privilege that must be earned and not an inalienable right. In a 2016 New York Times op-ed, Roger Clegg, deputy attorney general under both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, said:
The right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. The unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in.
The arguments in favor of automatic felon voting are unpersuasive. The fact that a disproportionate number of felons at some point in time belong to a particular racial group does not make disenfranchisement racist, just as most felons being male and young does not make these laws sexist or ageist. And while a disproportionate number of felons are black, their victims likewise are disproportionately black, so minimizing the consequences of crime and empowering criminals also has a disparate impact on their law-abiding African-American neighbors.
The vast majority of those in favor of preventing felons from voting say the right to vote must be regained upon re-entering society. According to Fox News:
Supporters of current law, however, point out that people who have committed felonies must demonstrate they are truly reformed before regaining the right to vote.
"It is important that this form of clemency be granted in a deliberate, thoughtful manner that prioritizes public safety and creates incentives to avoid criminal activity," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said during a discussion on clemency back in 2011.
In New York, a state with some of the strictest disenfranchisement laws, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has begun to pardon parolees who under state law are currently banned from voting. Cuomo has tried in the past to restore voting rights for previously incarcerated individuals, but his efforts were thwarted by the legislature. In May 2018, Cuomo issued the first round of conditional pardons, saying in a press release:
"The right to vote is fundamental and it is unconscionable to deny that basic right of citizenship to New Yorkers who have paid their debt to society," Governor Cuomo said. "Restoring a voice to men and women reentering their communities will strengthen our democracy, as well as the reentry process, which in-turn will help reduce recidivism."
Activists cheered the move. Per The New York Times:
“If we want to give people the opportunity to successfully live in our communities, we want to give them the opportunity to vote and be stakeholders,” Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said.
In a CNN town hall, presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was asked about his opinion on disenfranchisement. Sanders was specifically asked whether he believed the Boston Marathon bomber, who is currently facing the death penalty, or other similarly violent criminals should be allowed to vote while in prison. Sanders responded that voting is an "inherent" right in America and cannot be revoked.
The right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people.
Asked to respond to Sanders' statement in his own CNN town hall, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg took a different stance. While Buttigieg agreed that once a citizen has completed their sentence they should be allowed to vote, he felt that currently incarcerated people should not be allowed to cast ballots.
Part of the punishment when you're convicted of a crime and you're incarcerated is you lose certain rights, you lose your freedom. And I think during that period it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.