The answer dates back to Reconstruction after the Civil War. When the Fifteenth Amendment passed, Black Americans were guaranteed the right to vote. Outraged, Southern lawmakers worked tirelessly to pass laws to limit these newly acquired rights through poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. The most glaring way they ensured permanent disenfranchisement was to enact laws that prevented anyone convicted of a crime from voting, and to subsequently toughen punishment and disproportionately target Black people.
Felon bans continued to strengthen during the Jim Crow era. The larger the state’s Black population, the harsher the laws. As a result, today, Black people, still disproportionately targeted by police for incarceration, remain without the basic right to vote in prison and after release.
As if it couldn’t get worse, state and local governments count incarcerated people as residents of the districts where they are imprisoned, instead of their home districts. This drastically increases the population of districts where prisons are located, which are predominantly in rural white communities. This practice, known as prison-based gerrymandering, is reminscent of laws enacted during slavery when non-voting enslaved people were counted—as three-fifths human—which gave southern states more congressional power. Then and today, districts thus have increased political influence while the population they encage is never allowed a vote.
“Incarceration took many things away from me but it did not take away my citizenship. Democracy needs everyone and everyone includes people in prison and on parole. I believe we all can contribute positively to our political system if given the chance,” Juan, incarcerated at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in California, said.
Restoring the right to vote to individuals who work long hours, pay federal taxes, and positively contribute to their communities during and after incarceration, should be a no-brainer. It would be a significant reversal of racist policies enacted during the Jim Crow era, and positively benefit our political process by amplifying the voices of people most impacted by the mass policing, violence, and incarceration of this nation.
But one pressing question haunts skeptics: are people who have been convicted of crimes fit to vote? Political analyst and columnist for the New York Times Jamelle Bouie addresses the pervasive belief that people convicted of crimes should not be allowed to vote.
“There’s nothing about committing a crime, even a serious one, that renders someone incapable of making a considered political choice. Losing your liberty doesn’t mean you’ve lost your capacity to reason. Prisoners are neither more nor less rational than anyone else who is allowed to vote.
If anything, the political system needs the perspectives of prisoners, with their intimate experience of this otherwise opaque part of the state. Their votes might force lawmakers to take a closer look at what happens in these institutions before they spiral into unaccountable violence and abuse.”
If all people impacted by incarceration were allowed to vote, the conditions of this nation’s prisons would be seen in a more urgent light in public policy. America holds 5% of the world’s population, and incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. People are not more likely to commit more crimes here, just more likely to be targeted and thrown in a cage. The private prison industry then puts Black and brown people to work, pays them cents each hour, if it at all, and profits billions. It’s no wonder that incarceration is such a shunned topic.
“A country that's committed to the abolition of slavery should also be committed to repealing any laws that were put in place in order to uphold slave practices and that includes the felony disenfranchisement,” Sawari, the national coordinator for Right2Vote said.
Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow incarcerated people to cast ballots. Restoring the right to vote to all people impacted by incarceration is an important step to combating the racist legislation that still plagues this nation.
It is time for residents of all the other 48 states to rise up and join the Right2Vote campaign. We must work to end the draconian system of felony disenfranchisement established during the Jim Crow era once and for all.
To receive updates from the Right2Vote campaign, sign the petition. Here is a list of 2019 legislation Right2Vote is working to support and pass:
Massachusetts- S12 & S405
New Jersey- A3456 & S2100
New Mexico- HB 57
Washington- SB 5076
South Carolina - HB 4048
New York- S1931 & A4987
Kentucky - SB 238
Illinois – SB 2090
You can read more, support, and follow Amani Sawari’s work here.
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