Why Voting Rights for Felons Are So Important

This week, Maryland’s legislators achieved an important victory in the fight for a fairer democracy by extending voting rights to people who have been convicted of felonies. It was not an easy fight: Lawmakers had to override Governor Larry Hogan’s veto.

Under the previous law, people who had committed felonies had to wait until every part of their sentence was completed before they could vote, including parole and probation. Now, these individuals will be able to vote once they’re released from prison.

Hogan announced when he vetoed the bill that the he believed that the previous law achieved “the proper balance between repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights.” Lawmakers apparently disagreed.

Millions of Americans are barred from voting

The United States has the largest prison population in the world. According to estimates from the Sentencing Project, about 5.85 million people are denied the vote due to their involvement in the prison system.

And compared to other countries, American restrictions on voting rights for people imprisoned are well outside the norm. In a review of policy from 45 countries, only four, including the United States, had laws restricting individuals convicted of felonies from voting even after they were released. Twenty-one of those countries had no felony-related voting restrictions at all, meaning that even people in prison are allowed to vote.

Voting in Miami Photo Credit: Phillip Pessar

Voting in Miami Photo Credit: Phillip Pessar

Since the United States holds such an outsized portion of the world’s prisoners and people convicted of felonies, this form of voter disenfranchisement is unmatched in worldwide democratic society.

State laws on the matter do vary, and two states–Vermont and Maine–even allow people to vote from prison. But the vast majority of states do have strict prohibitions on voting rights for those with felony convictions, and it undoubtedly makes a large impact on local, state and even federal elections.

The partisan politics angle

When we discuss who should and shouldn’t receive voting rights, the question inevitably raises partisan anxieties.

The partisan implications of voting rights for people convicted of felons are relatively clear. Almost everyone believes allowing these people to vote would be a boon for Democrats. Racial minorities, in particular black people, are vastly overrepresented in prisons, and racial minority groups overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates. It’s easy to connect the dots.

Indeed, the majority of lawmakers who voted in favor of increasing voting access in Maryland were Democrats, and Governor Hogan, who vetoed the bill, is a Republican. This will surprise no one.

Inevitably, Republicans accuse Democrats of embracing this issue for purely cynical reasons. But in The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander argues that the system that produced mass incarceration, including voter disenfranchisement, was established as a mechanism to produce and reinforce a racial underclass in our society.

Black people are not just disproportionately represented in prisons. They are disproportionately stopped by police, given longer prison sentences, put under greater scrutiny, perceived as criminals, and targeted by prosecutors and legislators. Decades of de facto racial targeting in the drug war make this clear.

In effect, these policies actively and at least somewhat intentionally sought to marginalize a particular group of people for political and social ends. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, if increasing voting access to this population could have serious political consequences.

In fact, we should hope that it would. What’s cynical is having a system that disenfranchises such a significant portion of its black population. Undoing this injustice is not only right, it could have national consequences.

And don’t doubt that the consequences could be major. In Florida, one in ten residents is barred from voting because of the state’s harsh restrictions. Had this portion of the population been allowed to vote in 2000, that election may have turned out very differently.

But there are also psychological reasons for letting prisoners and those who have been released vote. It sends a message that they are still part of our community, and that they haven’t been written off. For a system that so frequently fails to reintegrate its charges back into mainstream society, this can only be an improvement.

Photo Credit: Justin Grimes

64 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

Most of those coming out of prisons are evil people and can't be trusted to do the vote for the best for our country.

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James Maynard
James Maynard1 years ago

If you have "paid" your debt to society, you should have your full rights as a citizen, period...........!

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ERIKA SOMLAI
ERIKA S1 years ago

noted

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Marie W.
Marie W1 years ago

To me depends on type of crime.

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Ullrich Mueller
Ullrich Mueller1 years ago

Look at who is in prison and who is concerned by these rules. Even if the judicial system were fair and color-blind (which it is not), if society were fair, color-blind and without discrimination against minorities (which it is not) and if a national voting system to prevent abuse at a local level were in place (which is not), even then depriving people who have been released from prison in order to BE RE-INTEGRATED INTO SOCIETY of the right to take part in elections and to shape the society they are supposed to respect and contribute to, would be more than doubtful and counter-productive.

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David Anderson
David Anderson1 years ago

The IT people need to do a little work. I had formatted my previous post into orderly paragraphs rather than the unreadable blob into which it was transformed.

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David Anderson
David Anderson1 years ago

As a conservative who has worked as a correctional officer, I probably bring a different perspective than most to this issue. While people are incarcerated, I am in favor of providing the most basic of needs (i.e., adequate food, clothing, shelter, and order, in the sense of protecting the weak from the stronger and more predatory).

Chad raises a point I hadn't considered. The shenanigans I see with rural incarceration generally have been artificially boosting weak job markets and keeping a politically volatile industry as far as possible from the greatest number of eyes. I would say that for purposes of representation, we are reasonably left with not counting them at all, counting them at their last outside address, or some kind of modern-day 3/5 compromise.

I have one overriding objection to truncating the rights of convicted persons, particularly after they are released, which is that it serves to create a de facto second-class citizenship. I would further add that extending limitations to probation and/or parole supervision fail in that both can be extended indefinitely with a few changes in the law. The bar can eventually be lowered to the point where anyone not politically connected enough to have a blind eye focused on them can be so demoted for something as minor as a traffic ticket. We must also consider the reason why the Constitution forbids granting titles of nobility--at the time, that was the primary method of establishing multiple classes of cit

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson1 years ago

As long as the right to vote is suspended, prisoners should not be counted for representation purposes. Many states use their rural incarceration to boost rural population figures to give rural voters more representatives.

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ERIKA SOMLAI
ERIKA S1 years ago

noted

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