This commentary was originally published in Northwest Florida Daily News.
Senator Bernie Sanders ignited a national discussion recently when he endorsed the right of individuals in prison to be able to vote, as is the case in his home state of Vermont. In doing so, Sanders raised fundamental questions of democracy and citizenship that are long overdue. Allowing people in prison to vote would both benefit public safety goals and enhance 21st century democracy.
As extreme as is our rate of incarceration in the United States, so too are our felony disenfranchisement laws by the standards of comparable nations. As of 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people were denied the right to vote due to a current or previous felony conviction. Of this total 1.3 million were incarcerated in state or federal prisons.
Disenfranchising those in prison is counterproductive for public safety because 95 percent of these people will return home someday. Re-entry into the community is a difficult process, but individuals who have strong connections to the community are more likely to be successful. In addition to having adequate housing, employment, and peer support, engagement in the political process provides an avenue for a connection to the health of the broader community.
Some critics of prisoner voting contend that being convicted of a felony is an indicator of being “untrustworthy” to being part of the electorate. This type of character test is a slippery slope that can only lead to a diminished pool of voters. I may be concerned that my neighbor is an alcoholic or a bad parent, but he still maintains the right to vote in a democracy. Or I might believe that anyone who is an acknowledged racist or Islamaphobe should not be allowed to vote, but once each of us goes down that road, we’ll produce a pretty slim electorate.
Felony disenfranchisement also ignores the important distinction between legitimate punishment for a crime and one’s rights as a citizen. Convicted individuals may be sentenced to prison, but they generally maintain their basic rights. So even if someone is held in a maximum security prison cell he or she still has the right to get married or divorced, or to buy or sell property. And to the extent that voting can be conceived as an expression of free speech, consider that a prisoner may submit an op-ed article to a newspaper and have it published, perhaps with greater impact than casting a single vote.
Disenfranchisement proponents sometimes raise the specter of a prisoners’ “voting bloc” that would run counter to the interests of the “law-abiding public.” The fallacy of such a scenario should be obvious. If such a group of “pro-crime” individuals were a real threat, they would somehow have to hoodwink the public into electing a majority of state legislators as well as a governor who shared their position. This fanciful concern is hardly a threat to public safety.
In fact, as I have visited in many prisons over the years, what I hear inside is a range of opinion as broad as in the outside world. Whether the issue is taxation, abortion, or immigration, prisoner political affiliations and beliefs span the spectrum of public opinion. And to the extent that prisoners have strong feelings about the criminal justice system, should that not factor in to the electoral arena? After all, oil company executives, labor union members, and religious leaders have expertise and opinions about their life experiences that they bring to the voting booth.
Critics of Sanders’ proposal charge that this would grant voting rights to terrorists in prison. This issue surfaced some years ago in Israel, as the nation’s Supreme Court considered a civil suit brought by Yigal Amir. Amir was convicted of killing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and was one of the most despised individuals in the country. Yet the court ruled on behalf of his and other prisoners’ right to vote, concluding that the nation must separate “contempt for this act” from “respect for his right.”
When this nation was founded as an experiment in democracy two centuries ago it was a very limited experiment. Women weren’t permitted to vote, nor African Americans, or people who were poor or illiterate. Over time evolving public sentiment has enfranchised all those groups, and we now look back on that moment with a great deal of national embarrassment. It’s now long past time to remedy the exclusion of the last remaining group of citizens who are denied the right to vote. This would represent a healthy contribution to democracy, as well as enhance public safety.
Marc Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project and the co-author of “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences.”