If Prisoners Can Save Our State, They Can Vote

Photo by openDemocracy

Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made reinstating voting rights to past and current felons a part of his platform. During a town hall with CNN, Sanders said that everyone deserves the right to vote — including those convicted of committing violent crimes. Sanders said that the disenfranchisement of incarcerated individuals is a slippery slope leading to wider disenfranchisement for everyone and the further suppression of minority groups in America.

And he’s right.

In the ‘80s, there were an estimated 500,000 incarcerated individuals in the United States. As of 2014, that number has ballooned to 2.2 million individuals. Even when adjusting for population growth, the prison population has seen a rise of 220% from 1980 to 2014. 

Crime rates have fallen drastically over the same period. According to an Obama White House criminal justice report, violent crime rates have fallen by 39%, while property crimes have fallen a staggering 52%. The report further explains that the drop in crime rates is not due to growth in incarceration numbers; rather, it is a result of other factors, such as changing demographics and better economic conditions. The same report concludes that when committing similar offenses, Black and Hispanic individuals are more likely than White individuals to be convicted and are often subject to harsher sentencing. This is one of the many reasons why people of color are incarcerated at a disproportionately higher rate than their white counterparts — and, as a consequence, lose their right to vote at a disproportionately higher rate.

Laws pertaining to voting rights are drafted at the state level. As a consequence of this, past and current convicted felons’ voting rights vary widely across the country. Only two states, Vermont and Maine, allow current felons to vote from prison. The other 48 do not allow current felons to vote from prisons; of these, 10 states can revoke a person’s right to vote for life. Take Florida — which until last year, did not allow anyone who has ever been a convicted felon to vote. Although Florida currently only houses around 110,000 prisoners, 1.5 million people have been disenfranchised in the state due to their ex-felon status. This amounts to 10% of the state’s total population, and has resulted in 20% of the Black population in Florida being unable to vote.

Proponents of felons losing their right to vote argue that these individuals have broken the social contract by violating the law, and that disenfranchisement as a consequence is justified as a result. However, this is a modern-day justification that has been retroactively applied to explain the issue. In reality, most of these laws sprung up around the period of reconstruction specifically to disenfranchise Black people. These laws were written to disenfranchise felons for minor offenses (which, at the time, Black people were more likely to be convicted of) but force no such consequences on those committing violent crimes (which White people were more likely to be convicted of). Although these have been reformed to include all offenses, they still affect non-violent Black offenders at a disproportionately high rate. 

With all this in mind, it is hard to draw a clear argument for keeping these archaic laws around. Most of the arguments are either overtly or subtly racist, or can be easily disproved. That is probably why the majority of opinion pieces out there are attempting to scare readers by saying that the Boston Marathon bomber and other extremely violent offenders would get the right to vote. Yes, they would, but so would the overwhelming majority of nonviolent first time offenders who would otherwise be cast out of our system. 4.05 million Americans, half of whom have served their sentences, have lost their right to vote. That is 1 in 40 Americans. If we can reinstate the voting rights of over 4 million Americans, I think it’s worth letting a violent offender doing 99 to life mark “Yes” or “No” on the latest gas tax prop.

Nicolas Perez is a fourth year Literary Journalism major and Opinion Co-Editor at New University, he can be reached at naperez1@uci.edu.