voting rights

Maybe gollumgollum can explain this one to me, since she’s studied the U.S. prison system.

I read a post recently by a guy who was convicted of a felony some years ago, did his time, got out. He apparently volunteers for political work regularly, “get out the vote” efforts — because he can’t vote. And I think that was the first time I discovered that felons in prison are not permitted to vote, and depending on the state they live in, cannot vote for some variable amount of time after they’ve been released.

I don’t understand why.

I know that our legal system is based on a principle of punishing offenders by stripping them of various freedoms and rights. On the whole, I prefer that to the principle of subjecting them to physical torment, say, or other options societies have tried throughout the centuries. But I’m not sure I get, let alone agree with, stripping them of the right to vote. Maybe it’s because I view that as a responsibility as much as a privilege. Maybe it’s because our entire prison system is kind of broken to begin with. But I just don’t get it. It isn’t like saying convicted pedophiles shouldn’t be allowed to live within five miles of an elementary school; I doubt these felons used their voting rights to commit their crimes.

Once you’ve done your time, what conceivable argument is there for not being allowed to participate in democracy again?

(What argument is there for not being allowed to participate while doing time? Are we afraid somebody will organize a prisoner voting bloc to pass some law favorable to them?)

This particular story had a happy ending; the guy in question had just discovered that in his state, he was in fact eligible to vote again. There was joy radiating from my screen, I swear. This is a guy who desperately cares about his country, who wants to do everything he can to be a part of it again. Denying ex-felons the right to vote, as far as I can see, only serves to ostracize them further, and hinder them from becoming productive members of society again.

0 Responses to “voting rights”

  1. shalanar

    It shows which states allowing prisoner voting, parolee voting, ex-con voting, etc.

    As to why they can’t vote? One belief (not personally my own) is that because they’ve committed a crime, regardless of the fact that they were punished and served the appropriate time, etc, by committing that crime they chose to remove themselves from the norms of society, and so even though they are now back in society, they should be punished by having the right to vote taken away…kind of society’s way of punishing them after the criminal justice system is done.

    I always found it rediculous myself. I understand not letting parolees vote. Parolees are stripped of many rights as a condition of their release. I’ve got no problem if voting is one of those rights. But once a prisoner has fully done his time, and is off parole, there is no reasonable excuse, in my mind, for why they shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

    • Marie Brennan

      I could maybe side with that argument for inmates: they have removed themselves from society, so we will remove them, too. But I don’t agree with it for parolees; why should voting be one of the rights they lose? How does that benefit society, unless you’re starting from a base assumption that we don’t want those undesirables mucking up our democracy? (Which calls to mind the appalling comment made by some Republican recently, about how early voting — which is disproportionately done by the poor — reduces the “quality” of the electorate in exchange for quantity.)

      • Anonymous

        With parolees, I view parole (bias: I work for CDCR) as an extension of punishment. Inmate A has been released, but is still under our watch. At any time, for things that wouldn’t get most people in trouble, they can be violated, and thrown back in prison. Because it’s an extension of punishment, and because they still answer to us, I don’t mind that they can’t vote. Once they’re off parole, once they’re out of our hands as it were, then they are truly back in society, and of course they should vote, and should have the right to vote. That’s just my $.02 on it though.

  2. raisinfish

    I imagine if prisoners were allowed to vote while in prison, this could cause problems for the precincts that have prisons in their boundaries. Prisoners could have an effect on local issues, even though the laws in those areas don’t actually affect them.

    Once they’re out, though? I don’t see any good reason for it, other than to further “punish”, which, as you said, just alienates the individual further.

    • Marie Brennan

      has a good answer for that first point below, though I’ll admit that might cause an administrative hassle for our prison system, which doesn’t operate too well at the best of times.

  3. drydem

    felon disenfranchisement is one of the greatest travesties of our legal system. The fact that people convicted using unjust laws are frequently restricted from direct political action that might change those laws is frustratingly unconstitutional.
    It needs SCOTUS attention and has been something I’ve ranted about before, but with a justice system devoted to rehabilitation in penitentiaries rather than a punishment system devoted to torture and isolation in oubliettes, we should at least consider the rehabilitated full citizens again.

  4. ckd

    Until 2000, Massachusetts allowed incarcerated felons to vote. (That’s still the only time the MA Constitution’s been amended to remove rights, since the anti-marriage folks lost.)

    I don’t see an argument against allowing felons who’ve served their time from voting.

    The “what if they overwhelm the local populace” argument for keeping serving felons from voting is easily fixed with a “require absentee ballots, voted at their residence of record upon incarceration” law.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m disappointed Massachusetts took that away, then. Do you happen to know what the logic was for the change?

      As I mentioned above, handling the absentee ballots would require some administrative work from the prison system, and I can see how that might be treated as a problem. I don’t think it’s a valid excuse, mind you, but I can understand it.

      • kniedzw

        It wasn’t logic. It was scaremongering. I remember the vote, and it was silliness.

        • ckd

          Yup. The voter’s guide has the traditional for/against statements, and the “for” was written by then-House Minority Leader Francis Marini, who in 2006 sponsored a bill to require libraries to block access to Internet sites that covered topics like “satanic cults,” “indecent depictions of bodily functions” and “illicit drugs, alcohol or tobacco products.”

          (Massachusetts Republicans: just as wacky as elsewhere, but far less effective most of the time.)

  5. nojojojo

    The rationale behind it is generally that felons have abrogated their responsibility to society by committing especially heinous crimes, so therefore don’t deserve to have a say in what that society does. In principle this actually makes a kind of sense to me. Someone who’s killed another person (except by total accident) has shown a basic lack of judgment and caution; I don’t want that person having a say in how the rest of us live our lives. Even if they’ve gone to prison — hell, especially if they’ve gone to prison, because our prison system doesn’t reform criminals, it makes them worse.

    The problem is how felon disenfranchisement is implemented in practice. For one thing, the definition of a felony varies wildly across states, to the point that the crimes often aren’t particularly heinous or society-damaging. In some states possessing a small amount of marijuana counts as a felony, while possessing an equal amount of cocaine (a much more damaging drug, but one used more often by the wealthy than the poor) does not. I used to live in a state where the theft or damage of any property over $250 counted as a felony. The law dated from way back when $250 was a lot of money, but these days $250 is nothing. If I borrow a friend’s XBox and somehow screw it up, and that friend gets mad at me and calls the cops, I could lose my right to vote. Somehow that doesn’t strike me as a heinous crime against society, yet that’s how it works.

    A bigger problem is that many of these laws were enacted after the passage of the 15th Amendment (the one giving blacks the right to vote), along with things like voter literacy tests, etc., as part of an overall strategy to reduce the potential power of the black vote. And areas of the country which keep these laws on the books tend to be those with a high population of black or poor citizens, where the wealthy whites in power feel threatened for control of the local government. So you usually see felon disenfranchisement in the same places where you see weird gerrymandering to increase the voting power of wealthy white neighborhoods over poor or PoC ones, etc.

    Your friend is a good example of another part of the problem: misinformation. Many officials in the criminal justice system tell prisoners and ex-prisoners that they’ve lost the right to vote when this is in fact not true. Many prisoners don’t know where to get correct information about this; they just believe the guards or parole officers (or conservative politicians) who tell them this crap, who might very well be misinformed themselves (or maliciously spreading disinformation).

    • Marie Brennan

      But there are plenty of non-felons whose judgment and caution is equally suspect, if not moreso. <g> We don’t require an IQ test or even a common sense test to vote. And I’d trust that logic a lot more if I believed that everybody in prison actually deserved to be there. (See also: your examples of felony differences.)

      You hit on something that I forgot to say in the original post, though, which is that there’s an inescapable class/race component to this situation, given that the prison population is disproportionately poor and non-white. It makes me think of the attitude I’ve been catching a whiff of, namely, that this election will somehow be “skewed” because African-Americans (and Latinos, too) are turning out in droves to vote. Me, I’m cheering on the fact that a demographic which usually feels its votes don’t count is so energized. If black votes turn out to make up a disproportionate part of the electorate, well, that just says to me that we need to get the other parts off their asses, too. But those votes count just as much as anybody else’s. And if they vote for things the rich white folks don’t like, well, that’s how democracy works.

      Unless you’re in prison, apparently.

      (This was not, for the record, a friend. The post was a diary on The Daily Kos, made by a community member when he discovered he was eligible after all.)

      • nojojojo

        But there are plenty of non-felons whose judgment and caution is equally suspect, if not moreso. We don’t require an IQ test or even a common sense test to vote.

        Oh, I agree 100%. I’d love to disqualify people like this (YouTube) who believe every half-baked illogical rumor on the web, and conjure up generations-deep conspiracy theories, and are just generally morons. -_-

        t makes me think of the attitude I’ve been catching a whiff of, namely, that this election will somehow be “skewed” because African-Americans (and Latinos, too) are turning out in droves to vote. Me, I’m cheering on the fact that a demographic which usually feels its votes don’t count is so energized. If black votes turn out to make up a disproportionate part of the electorate, well, that just says to me that we need to get the other parts off their asses, too.

        Yeah, I’ve heard this stuff too. I was expecting it at about this point, actually.

        See, thing is, “disproportionate” is a very revealing term, when you listen to the people who use it in this context. Disproportionate is a statistical term, implying a comparison against a norm. So what norm do these people have in mind? What would a large PoC vote be disproportionate to? The US population? That’s not possible; if every eligible black, Latina/o, Asian, etc. citizen turns out to vote, that will simply be “proportionate”. It could only be disproportionate if there was rampant voter fraud and a lot of us got to vote twice or something, and that would be a whole other problem. (Of course, the same people arguing about a “disproportionate” turnout are also trying to imply that there is rampant voter fraud, to justify their efforts to disenfranchise Democratic voters for “errors” like using their middle initial or a nickname on forms.)

        Or is a high PoC vote disproportionate compared to history? Well, since PoC in America have historically under-voted, leading to a disproportionate underrepresentation, then anything which corrects this is again not disproportionate, it’s correcting disproportion.

        Yet that’s what these people seem to be implying — that this historical underrepresentation is the norm against which we should all be comparing. So it’s only “disproportionate” if you believe that PoC underrepresentation is a good, normal thing.

        It’s sad, really. We’ve never been a democracy, for all our bragging about it — mostly because whenever we actually try, people start acting like efforts to get everyone to vote are undemocratic.

        • Marie Brennan

          The norm I have in mind is whatever total the subset comes out of. For inmates, I compare them against the total U.S. population; for votes cast, I compare against the eligible electorate and/or registered voters (depending on the question). Which means that, in the normal way of things, black voters are usually disproportionately under-represented: they make up a smaller percentage of voters than they do of the eligible electorate. If it happens that every eligible PoC turns out and they cast (the following figures are made up) 50% of the votes when they make up 40% of the population, I would also call that disproportionate. But unlike the people generally talking about this, the only problem I have with it is that it means we still have a bunch of people not exercising their right to vote. In the meantime, I’m cheering on all those PoCs who have made their voices heard.

          If this boosted turnout just means PoC voters are turning out in about the same numbers as whites — say, 75% of both groups vote — well, that’s good progress, and in the meantime let’s try to get that other 25% out there, too. Unfortunately, you’re right: a lot of people would call that disproportionate, too.

  6. gollumgollum

    These laws date from back in the days when white property owning (etc.) males were the only ones allowed to vote. They’re pretty stupid, and they keep approximately two percent of the population from being able to vote–a sizeable number, when you look at how close the last couple elections have been.

    Right now, prisons get counted funny–Putnam County, Indiana, where i went to college, is considered to be the second poorest county in Indiana because the Putnamville Correctional Facility (aka the State Farm) is there, and those prisoners get counted in the U.S. Census as Putnam County residents. (They also don’t have much income to speak of.) I imagine if that’s considered your county of residence, that makes it your voting place. There are roughly 2,400 inmates at the Farm; the town of Putnamville is nowhere near that size, and as someone noted above, the inmates at the Farm would absolutely overwhelm the local government. While the absentee ballot idea is a reasonable one, it doesn’t work that well in practice; your inmates at the Farm have simply committed their crimes in Indiana, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re from Indiana. So now you have prison administrators trying to track down voter registration forms from all over the country, and so on; i’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s difficult.

    Anyway. A lot of the current disenfranchisement is rooted in past racism, of course; disenfranchisement stayed on the books as a means of keeping blacks from being able to vote even after they were awarded the opportunity to do so. It’s also reflected in sentencing disparities, as someone else noted above–cocaine in powdered form nets you a misdemeanor, while cocaine in rock form a felony. The African-American population is also disproportionately incarcerated, especially males, and so while 2% of the general US population is disenfranchised, the number is roughly 13% among black males.

    Finally, it varies from state to state, and the protection of disenfranchisement has been held up as a states’ rights issue. What’s important to note is that (as of 2004) there are only 13 states that have disenfranchised felons for life; the others tend to only extend it to prison, parole and probation, although things vary there as well. That said, it’s still one of the stupidest laws still on the books, and very deserving of being overturned.

    (I’m feeling a bit durrrr, like i’m not able to put my point together coherently. To sum up, disenfranchisement baaaaaaaaaad!)

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I suspected the absentee ballot thing would cause problems, and given that we tend to stick prisons in low-population areas, the local issue is a real one. Still, those difficulties could be surmounted, if we actually cared enough to do it.

      You sound perfectly coherent to me — but maybe that’s because you’re agreeing with me that this is stupid and problematic. 🙂 It helps to get a better-informed opinion to back up my own vague thoughts.

  7. armbarred

    One more thing to take into account with inmates voting: too many inmates are just going to do what they are told. So maybe the warden, a CO, or a gang tells them to vote X. That seems pretty weighted when you are considering the numbers that could be thrown toward a ballot.

    As for former inmates, repeat offenders aren’t far removed from the system so I can see an amount of time to see if they come back to the system. Also, for a one time serve criminal, there is a re-introduction period where normal life is almost too much to bare. So there is a time period of adjustment.

    • Marie Brennan

      And a lot of church-goers are just going to do what their pastor tells them, and a lot of “low-information” voters are just going to vote according to the smear e-mails their cousin forwards. The fact that wardens et al. have more substantial power makes the two qualitatively different — but then again, last time I checked, voting here was done by secret ballot. If the warden (or gang, or whoever) knows how an inmate has voted, something has gone wrong.

      Your second point would hold more weight with me if I found the logic of barring prisoners from voting more convincing in the first place.

  8. mirrorred_star

    I know that the last federal (conservative) government in Australia passed a law that people who are in prison at all can’t vote in federal elections.

    Practically, here, people in prison are statistically more likely to be lower class, and lower class people tend to vote Labour, so it’s sort of a way of rigging the votes. Although I think that would be more effective here because voting is compulsory. At least, I got that impression.

    There’s probably rhetoric for this along the lines of ‘people who are in prison don’t have a current stake in society, and therefore shouldn’t vote’.

    I have not heard of people not being able to vote after they’ve gotten out of prison, though. It just sort of seems like hedging ideology or something- either those once convicted have been punished and now have a clean slate to continue existing in society, or they’re forever ‘tainted’ and don’t deserve a say in the furute of their nation.

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