Imagine the following scenario: you just turned 18 and are finally eligible to vote in the United States. It’s Thanksgiving break, and you’re heading home from college via Greyhound. At a rest stop, a cop comes on board and starts searching everyone’s stuff. When he comes up to you and asks if he can search your bag, you say yes, believing that it’s your obligation to. But you know there’s cocaine in your bag.
You’re carrying enough for it to be considered a felony offense. You’re now labeled a felon for life, and you live in a state that denies voting rights permanently for any felon.
You will never vote. You will never have a voice in choosing everything from the local school board to the president. You have been denied your right to participate in the democracy you call home.
The United States has notoriously tough felon voting laws. If the jail time and fines weren’t enough, the felon label can haunt you for the rest of your life, impeding access to public housing, student loans, jobs, food stamps and a variety of other resources desperately needed by those coming out of prison. The felon label can also take away your right to vote: According to The Sentencing Project, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws prohibiting voting by people with felony convictions. That’s 1 in every 13 African Americans who can’t vote. What kind of democracy is that?
Only Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote while in jail. Other states vary in whether they allow those on probation, parole or full release to vote.
Compared to other democracies in the world, disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated is an American speciality. Countries such as Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and even South Africa place no restrictions on voting whatsoever, allowing prisoners to vote even while they’re serving time.
Exacerbating the problem is that prisoners are not counted in the Census based on their home address, but rather on where their prison is located - causing overrepresentation in white, rural communities and underrepresentation in minority, urban communities. This has devastating consequences for government representation and allocation of resources. In two words: messed up. In a phrase: this counting system perpetuates socioeconomic and racial disparities in the United States.
To see how disenfranchisement varies state by state, check out this interactive map from The Sentencing Project.
Some steps in the right direction are occurring, and I don’t mean just efforts to decriminalize marijuana (which help, too). Efforts by Attorney General Eric Holder and Kentucky Senator Ran Paul are putting powerful voices behind the restoration of felon voting rights and I hope they lead to actual legislation. What’s even more hope-inspiring is that they’re addressing the issue’s racial component, because voter disenfranchisement is merely a symptom of a criminal justice system that perpetuates the cycle of poverty and exclusion from the American Dream for minorities.
This post is dedicated to those 5.85 million Americans who are denied the right to vote. May we move towards restoring justice for them.