Jurisdictions Should Embrace Voting Rights for All Americans—Including Those Who Are Incarcerated

Voting In Prison Full
Americans do not lose their citizenship when convicted of a crime, and the U.S. Constitution gives states the power to let people in prison vote.

But even for people convicted and currently serving time in prison, there is a hint of progress. In 2016, California passed a law allowing people convicted of felonies but serving their time in county jails—rather than state prisons—to vote starting in 2017 (AB 2466). People serving time in state prison for the same offenses, however, remain disenfranchised. A ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people in prison and on parole in California failed to gain enough signatures to get on the ballot in 2018 but Initiate Justice, the organization backing the bill, is continuing to educate the public on why we should not disenfranchise any American.

New Jersey is also considering legislation to allow prison voting (S2100). “There is no relationship between voting and committing crimes. To disenfranchise those who have made mistakes and are paying for them is wrong,” said New Jersey Senator Ronald Rice. Racial equity is an important motivator as well. “As a result of racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, half of those denied the right to vote are black, even though black people make up only 15 percent of the state’s total population,” noted Ryan Haygood, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

In Ohio, the Cleveland Plain Dealer endorsed giving people in prison the vote, arguing it would allow people to “maintain their connections to society as members of the communities they call home.”

This feeling of connection to the civic right and duty to vote was affirmed by several voters incarcerated in Vermont and Maine prisons. “To be able to vote made me feel as part of a community, like that I’m not just a convict, that I’m a human being,” one person told a reporter in 2016. Another said, “It was one thing I could do that I can have control of, the one thing that could let me feel that I can make a difference in something. . . . I grew up in prison and voting helped me learn responsibility.” It led him to discuss politics and form bonds with correctional officers and other incarcerated people.

Whether one’s motivation is that voting should be an inalienable part of civic rights and duties, to promote racial equity, or to enhance successful reentry, let’s hope that more jurisdictions embrace voting rights, both in and out of prison.

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