Let My People Vote

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and embrace Senator Crime

Earlier this year, the Overton window shifted dramatically on an issue I have worked on for about a decade now: voting rights. Specifically, voting rights for people with past felony convictions.

An erstwhile democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, at a CNN Town Hall held on April 22, 2019 (which feels like ten lifetimes ago in this COVID-19 era) said that all prisoners should be able to vote. Yes, even the Boston Bomber.

It caused a remarkable stir as, much to my surprise — many people agreed with him. Sanders represents Vermont in the Senate which, along with Maine, is a state where people’s right to vote is never taken away. Not even if they’re convicted of serious crimes.

And today, much to my amazement, the American Bar Association adopted a resolution endorsing voting rights for people in prison without regard to their past:

The discourse on voting rights for people with convictions has come a remarkably long way in recent years, with several states either restoring rights of formerly incarcerated by way of executive order (I wrote about my experience with Kentucky for Slate here) or constitutional amendment (such as with Florida’s Amendment 4, which I have a number of reservations about — namely, that it carves out certain crimes such that it doesn’t actually end the practice of disenfranchisement, but entrenches it).

Even a few years ago, seeing this much support for even currently incarcerated people to be able to vote wasn’t really thinkable to me.

But I am extremely here for it, and here’s why.

Simply stated, disenfranchisement is a policy that is rooted in American slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. It belongs in the dustbin of history, and not our headlines. It always amazes me to talk to well-meaning liberals who recognize the stain of slavery on our country, and how our legal system is undeniably racist, and yet think at the same time that same system should determine who can vote.

While holding people accountable for harm is important, people in prisons are people, and they are still Americans. They are, perhaps more than most of us, involved in an up-close-and-personal relationship with their (and our) government.

The government, happily enough, still profits from their labor and uses their bodies for political apportionment purposes. Taxation without representation — sound familiar?

Also, most of them are going to be coming home, and most of them have families in the community. It is in all our best interests to keep them connected to not only their families but also the broader community, including the political one, even as they undergo their period of punishment. Research that I published with Dr. Matt Vogel found that, after release, there’s about a 10% higher rate of re-arrest associated with states that have more severe disenfranchisement policies. It’s impossible to say if it is causation, but this is a policy that is all risk and no reward (assuming that our actual goal is to create safer, engaged communities).

It is also not just those individual voters that become disenfranchised, but rather entire communities of voters. As Kevin Morris of the Brennan Center found in a recent paper, disenfranchisement has spillover effects, particularly in Black neighborhoods.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments against allowing people in prison to vote, but none that I’ve found to be particularly compelling. Perhaps the most common argument is that it is part of their punishment — that they have essentially broken the social contract. But a contract has at two parties, and this argument assumes that the other side hasn’t breached first. I’m not sure that you can say that, particularly for communities of color, that America has really been living up to its end of the bargain.

Plus, we don’t take away people’s right to worship, or get married. Voting never has to enter into it (and, as stated up top, in Maine and Vermont it never does), and the only reason why it does enter into it is because of — again — our legacy of slavery and racism. It is a legacy we should be moving to abandon.

People also sometimes worry about what if the prisoners get together to elect someone who makes crime legal — Senator Crime, you might say. Happily enough, the Supreme Court has declared that depriving people of the ability to vote based on how they might vote is unconstituional (not to mention, patently undemocratic). But more broadly, if there’s so many people in prison or so few people who vote that allowing prisoners to vote can swing an election, then you’ve got a society that’s got some pretty big problems.

But at a basic level, if Senator Crime is elected on the prisoner vote: shouldn’t you run someone more compelling? Isn’t that just, you know, democracy?

I have often wondered whether at least part of the reason we have such a crisis of punishment, in that we punish so many people so harshly, is that for decades politicians have been able to dunk on an enormous group of people without fear of any consequence at the ballot box. What if, all of a sudden, they had to weigh the risks of using prisoners as political fodder?

I would love to see the day where the thinking and work that I’ve done on the issue of disenfranchisement can be more accurately described as history, as opposed to current events. Perhaps, with any luck, we’re headed in that direction.