With just five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of its prisoners. We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Since 1972, America’s prison population has increased sevenfold.
Most of the commentary on prisoners and voting focuses on felonies. Felonies can include violent crimes like murder and assault, but also non-violent crimes like tax evasion, drug dealing, and check fraud.
Forty-eight states restrict the voting rights of people convicted of felonies. Each of these states has established its own laws with regard to the deprivation of voting rights because of a felony conviction. Just two New England states, Maine and Vermont, let convicted felons vote while they’re in prison and when they leave prison.
Today nearly six million convicted felons are ineligible to vote. Two-thirds of them are no longer in prison. Over half of the states go so far as to prohibit voting by individuals who are not incarcerated but are on parole or probation.
Approximately 2.6 million of convicted felons remain voteless despite having completed all parts of their sentence (prison time, parole, probation). They live in states that bar felons from the polls for life, or require a post-sentence waiting period or clemency from the governor before they can vote again.
The rise in felon disfranchisement across the U.S. closely tracks America’s “War on Drugs” and soaring prison population since the 1970s. There are about 2.4 million Americans currently behind bars in local, county, state and federal facilities. People convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs account for one-third of all convicted felons, the largest single group.
A large part of the history of felon disfranchisement relates to the issue of race. Many felony disfranchisement laws in the U.S. have a disproportionate impact on the voting rights of black and Hispanic individuals. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system occur in the higher arrest, sentencing, and incarcerations rates for minorities than whites.
A 2009 study confirms that America’s felony disfranchisement laws, policies and practices denies voting rights to minorities in a way that also violates the general principles of international human rights law. The study recommends restoring voting rights to all who are no longer in prison.
Polls indicate that a clear majority of the public support automatic restoration of voting rights upon the completion of a sentence. In February, Attorney General Eric Holder made a plea to states, “(to overturn) laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.” He called the laws unwise, unjust, counterproductive, and not in keeping with our democratic values. He referred to their current scope as “too significant to ignore (and) to unjust to tolerate.”
All citizens deserve the right to vote regardless of their criminal records. The only time you lose your right to vote should be when you renounce your citizenship and abandon the political community.
Millions of American citizens who are now or were formerly incarcerated are restricted from voting, but they are counted in the census and included in calculations for creating voting districts. Voting is a basic right that defines a citizen. To condemn millions to political silence violates a basic principle of American democracy and government. It can provide cause for bitterness and alienation. Denying the vote for a lifetime serves no practical or philosophical purpose.
Allowing prisoners to vote may strengthen social ties, commitment to the common good, and participation in civil society. Since prisoners already lose many freedoms, to deny them the vote is ethically unjustifiable. Allowing felons to vote is absolutely consistent with the American tradition of making our democracy more and more inclusive, generation after generation.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U.S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.