Of Course Prisoners Should Have the Right to Vote

Politics Features Mass Incarceration
Of Course Prisoners Should Have the Right to Vote

I realize that I am in the minority here, and most of you reading this likely fall into the “lose right to vote until sentence is complete” bar, but let me tell you why you’re wrong.

Voting is our most basic right as citizens. Allowing us to choose our representatives is what makes us a democracy. Americans look down on countries that do not allow their citizens to have a say in their own political outcomes, and yet, we have at least 6.1 million people (that figure represents 3% of registered voters) in our “democracy” who have no say whatsoever over their own political futures when or if they do get out of prison. If you argue that people in prison should not have the right to vote, then you are essentially arguing that people in prison are not American citizens. If they are not American citizens, then that means they do not get to enjoy some protections in the constitution.

Should people in prison be protected by the First Amendment while trapped under the state? Do they have a right to privacy, as laid out by the Third, Fourth and Fifth Amendments? Do they have a right to not be slaves, as established by the Thirteenth Amendment?

You see how denying one basic democratic right opens you up to a litany of tricky questions about others? Where do you draw the line at how much democracy prisoners are allowed to enjoy?

This has real-world impact. This isn’t some hypothetical confined to the annals of political science debates. When you start stripping people of their rights, you dehumanize them, and make it easier for the dehumanizing status quo, exemplified by these graphic and disturbing images, to define America’s prison system and inform our national character.

We jail more people than Stalin did at the height of his barbarity, and roughly half of people in prison are there for nonviolent drug offenses. We have an idea of a violent prisoner in our heads when we think of not allowing those in prison to vote, but the truth is far more complex. Jim Crow never died, it was just repackaged as the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration is a form of voter suppression.

It’s actually worse than just voter suppression. Thanks to a quirk in how we apportion political power, mass incarceration creates communities that actually subsist off the prison industrial complex. Per the Prison Policy Initiative:

The way the Census Bureau counts people in prison creates significant problems for democracy and for our nation’s future. It leads to a dramatic distortion of representation at local and state levels, and creates an inaccurate picture of community populations for research and planning purposes.

The Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are confined, though they are barred from voting in 48 states and return to their homes after being released. The practice also defies most state constitutions and statutes, which explicitly state that incarceration does not change a residence.

The Bureau’s approach to counting incarcerated people dates back to the beginning of the census, when it was important only to count the number of people in each state to ensure equal representation in Congress. Congressional apportionment relied on the comparative populations of the states, not where people were relative to each other within each state. Now that Census data are used for redistricting at all levels of government, the specific location of populations is critical. The prison population has risen exponentially in the past couple of decades; counting the people in prison in the wrong place now undermines the Supreme Court’s requirement that political power be apportioned on the basis of population. The process of drawing fair and equal districts fails when the underlying data are flawed.

So not only do we not let prisoners vote, but we incentivize districts to build prisons, and then maintain large prison populations in order to use prisoners’ presence in their district to artificially inflate that district’s very real political power. Prisons have far more democratic rights in America than prisoners do.

This is a topic in the news because Bernie Sanders stood firm on his principles in last night’s CNN town hall and unequivocally supported prisoners’ right to vote, and because we live in America, this is how the definitely 100,000% unbiased folks over at the New York Times framed it:

This whole debate really comes down to two questions.

1. Are we a true democracy, or do we want to set up restrictions on who can and cannot vote (like we originally did in the constitution with things like the Three-Fifths Compromise)?

2. Are prisoners citizens?

If the answer to #2 is no, then you must lay out what other rights should be stripped of the largest group of incarcerated people—mostly nonwhite drug offenders—in the history of the world. If they are not citizens, then we must come up with another defined legal class for them, or else you are making the case that prisoners should not have any basic rights guaranteed to them whatsoever, and this uncomfortable gray area discussion is the part of America that Hitler so admired, per Hitler in Mein Kampf.

Is that the kind of country we want to be? Let’s assume the best of our prison system (if that’s even possible), and say we live in a different world where the only occupants of our jails are 100% guilty of heinous crimes. Do we still want to deny basic rights to an American guaranteed by the constitution?

America likes to claim to be honorable and above the fray—a shining city on a hill, if you will—but our prison system reveals our true punitive instincts. A majority of people believing that prisoners should only regain their most basic right after leaving prison reveals that exacting punishment is a bigger motivation than rehabilitation when it comes to the very concept of prison in America. How are we supposed to fully reintegrate prisoners back into civil society if we strip them of their citizenry? Unless that’s not the point. Then we are admitting that we fail to be the country we purport to be.

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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