Incarcerated People Should Be Allowed to Vote
Updated: Jan 3
“We messed up. We’re paying our debt to society by being in prison…but we’re still human,” says Tyler Orvis, who was convicted of felonies for burglary and lewd and lascivious conduct. “We still should have the right to vote.” Tyler is not the exception, but the rule. Today, because of restrictive state laws surrounding felon disenfranchisement, 5.2 million people cannot vote.
Felon disenfranchisement is dangerous because incarcerated people cannot vote on issues that directly affect them, such as prison conditions and abuse. Lawmakers who represent incarcerated people are not incentivized to pass legislation that will help reduce prison abuse. When re-election time comes, many lawmakers are looking to appeal to the constituents that will vote for them, not to the ones that need the most help. The rates of prison abuse have been rising for the past decade. The Equal Justice Initiative finds that over 50% of Americans in prison have a mental illness. Prison officials often fail to provide appropriate treatment for people whose behavior is difficult to manage, instead resorting to physical violence and solitary confinement. In a 2011 ruling that held overcrowded California prisons in violation of the Eighth Amendment, Former Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that in California alone, an inmate “needlessly dies every six or seven days.” A person who has witnessed the inside of a prison can attest to the abuse that takes place better than a person who has never been convicted. Alysé Bigger, program manager at Massachusetts Promise Fellowship, has twice “donated” her entire ballot to a man who is incarcerated on a felony conviction. She pointed out in an interview that the man is directly affected by the criminal justice system. As a result, she felt he should be responsible for choosing officials “more than I should right now.” Rather than having people like Alysé give up their vote, we should allow people in prison the right to vote. By creating a political constituency of prison voters, we would be hearing voices that are affected by laws around incarceration, lessening prison abuse considerably.
Felon disenfranchisement supporters believe that felons threaten public safety, therefore, why should they have a say in the laws that govern the public? On the contrary, felon disenfranchisement is counterproductive for public safety because 95% of people who are currently incarcerated will return home someday. In fact, incarcerated people currently serving time in prison or jail are a minority. The Sentencing Project estimates that in 2021, 75% of disenfranchised voters already live in their communities, having completed their sentence, or under probation or parole supervision. While it is important to not ban the voting the rights of no longer incarcerated people, it is equally important to allow people in prison to vote. The idea that newly non-incarcerated people are “safer” contains a logical fallacy. “By virtue of being able to afford a good attorney, there are people currently on probation for the same exact crime that other people are in prison for,” said Henal Patel, an associate counsel with the nonprofit New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “It matters if a parent can vote for their child’s school board, even when incarcerated.” There is greater opposition towards letting currently incarcerated people vote from prison. The basis of the fear is that letting people with serious convictions vote could drastically change the laws that are passed, harming non-incarcerated people. But in the two states that already allow everyone to vote, such worst-case scenarios have not occurred. Seth Lipschutz, supervising attorney at the Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Office, claims that voting from prison is “no big deal.” Prisons hold voter-registration drives where currently incarcerated people “register to vote at their last address before they were sent to prison, so they don’t hypothetically register in a bloc and “take over the town” where their prison is located,” Lipschutz assures. Social psychologist Tom Tyler finds that those who feel a sense of ownership and investment in their government are less likely to commit crimes. By promoting civic engagement within and outside prisons, we are ensuring successful reintegration into society and benefitting public safety in the long run.
Another main point felon disenfranchisement supporters bring up is that incarcerated people don’t pay taxes, so they should not have a say in our political system. Prison Policy finds that incarcerated people average 14 cents to a little over a dollar per day, which would put them in the 10% tax bracket. Theoretically, if we forced incarcerated people to pay taxes, we would be getting $20 yearly per person. To employed, non-incarcerated people, this number may seem insignificant, but to currently incarcerated people, taxation would severely limit their access to basic necessities. When it comes to deciding whether a person should be able to buy soap and toothpaste versus claiming “taxation without representation,” soap and toothpaste win.
Incarcerated people are just as human as we are. We live in a country bound by democratic values. Our voice is our freedom, and incarcerated people should be allowed to advocate for themselves. To help, you can donate to organizations committed to fighting voter suppression, such as The Brennan Center for Justice and American Civil Liberties Union. You can also register your friends and family to vote and use your voice in the polls to help overturn felon disenfranchisement. If we let previously and currently incarcerated people vote, we will pave the way for a flourishing, civically engaged society that cares about all its constituents, not just the ones that look good on paper.
Written by: Neha Kedarnath Dubhashi