Unlock The Vote:
Felony Disenfranchisement and The Re-enfranchisement of Convicted Felons
By: Cameron Liguori
The hardest part of any prison sentence starts the day they open the gate and tell you that you’re free. In prison there is no responsibility. You are told when to eat, when to shower, and when to sleep. It is not until you are released that you must face society and undertake the burden of responsibility. But what if society wants nothing to do with you? What if by committing a crime you were no longer considered an American citizen and could not vote for the people that are elected to run the country?
Most Americans do not consider their right to vote a privilege. But felony disenfranchisement, which is excluding American citizens that are otherwise eligible to vote from voting because of a felony conviction, says otherwise. The Sentencing Project, which has been an advocate of criminal justice reform for over thirty years, says that a record 6.1 million Americans were unable to vote due to felony convictions in 2016.
While many states have amended their laws to allow felons to vote, much progress needs to be made in order to bring felony disenfranchisement laws to where they should be, which is zero. Society has become increasingly aware of the effects felony disenfranchisement has on its communities. Eight out of ten Americans say that they are in favor of voting rights for convicted felons. Felony disenfranchisement is one of the top reasons for the country’s high recidivism rate, and has a major impact on our society. Felony disenfranchisement has no place in our democratic society and should be erased from our overly punitive country.
In American history felony disenfranchisement has taken a long and winding road. Following the civil war it was used to keep African-Americans who broke the law from voting. It also became an important aspect of the Jim Crow laws. After the Jim Crow laws were enacted, felony disenfranchisement was still used, however, it was changed so that it only applied to crimes that were known to be committed by African-Americans.
To this day, unfortunately, it still prevents a large number of black people from voting. According to statistics, one in every thirteen black males is ineligible to vote due to a felony conviction. It has been argued that laws banning felons from voting are the last remaining strand of the web of racist laws instituted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Every state has procedures for felons to get back their voting rights, however, they are often so difficult and time consuming that they operate as an additional barrier against felons voting. It is a common misconception that every American citizen is endowed with a guaranteed right to vote. In fact, America is one of only eleven countries that does not give its citizens a guaranteed right to vote, blatantly disregarding the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which commits it countries to respect the rights and freedoms of individuals, including electoral rights.
Felony disenfranchisement causes many other problems for felons and the country as a whole besides just taking away someone’s right to vote. If a felon is released from prison and he or she finds themselves stripped of their rights, it can lead them to feel shunned from society. If a person feels that they are an outsider, and is constantly treated like one, then they cannot be expected to form any type of relationship with society, and thus not be considered to conform to its laws.
America is considered the most punitive country in the world. It has a higher rate of incarceration than any other country. Unfortunately, the American prison system is focused more on punishment than it is on rehabilitation. Not only does America’s prison system lack any useful form of rehabilitation, it also expects people who are released from prison to be able to function in normal society without any type of preparation. To compare America’s punishment only prison system with that of other nations who use rehabilitation programs, it is quite clear to see why the American system does not work. In Denmark, for example, prisoners are given a budget to buy their own food, and often work together to save money. Not only does this type of rehabilitation program teach
inmates how to make smart decisions with their money, it also teaches them how to work cooperatively with other people, two very important skills for staying out of the prison system.
If America were to allow people in prison to vote, not only would it give them back their voting rights, it would act as an excellent rehabilitation method, as it would allow them to feel like they are a part of their communities, and thus lower their cynical views of society, and quite possibly their propensity for criminal behavior. According to child psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg, “where there are no human attachments, there can be no conscience”. While she was referring mainly to conditions inside American detention facilities, there is no doubt that it is relevant to the treatment of the disenfranchised today. If a felon loses their right to vote, they also lose a major connection to the rest of society. How can someone who quite possibly has very little training for societal interactions be expected to follow society’s lead when they have no connection to it.
In recent years there have been significant changes in felony disenfranchisement laws at the state government level. Since 1997, twenty-three states have changed their policies regarding felony disenfranchisement in an effort to reduce restrictions and expand voter eligibility. However, as of 2014, there are only two states that have no voter restrictions for felons, whether in prison or out. If America wants to become less restrictive against the rehabilitation of felons and ex-felons alike, many more changes need to be made to felony disenfranchisement policies.
Many of the laws that we have today were brought into existence in a time when society was much different. It was not a time when a man could marry another man, or a black man could walk freely down the street. As a society we must understand that times do indeed change, no matter how much we try to stop them. If we have come to a point in time where a woman can hold another woman’s hand because they are in love, is it unreasonable to think that a person who has broken the law can live life in normal society? Our laws make it so difficult for a felon to make a better life for themselves that many of them give up. If society can learn to adapt and accept things that at one time seemed impossible, it is only fair that our government should be flexible and change laws that in no longer needs to enforce.
As a college student who is currently on parole I face up to five years in prison if I attempt to register to vote.