It’s an election year again. Which means you, just like me, have been getting bombarded with press releases, flyers, news articles, debates, and more information than you could ever possibly require about this round of candidates. Sure, this can be irritating at times, but it’s what you’ve come to expect this time of year and it can be useful. So you take what information you want and start thinking about who you’re going to vote for in November. But what if you couldn’t? What if you had to receive all this material and see all the advertisements about voting but you weren’t allowed to? That is the reality that 5.3 million adults face in the United States. Convicted felons who have lost their right to vote. With their conviction, they lost one of the most crucial aspects of citizenship in this country. And quite frankly I think that’s wrong. As a democratic nation, the United States shouldn’t be able to pick and choose who should have the right to vote.
Before I continue, let me clarify, voter eligibility is determined on a state by state basis, it’s not an overarching standard within the country. But generally speaking convicted felons can’t vote while they’re in jail and they can’t vote while they’re on parole. They can maybe vote once they finish serving their sentence. But even if they do regain their eligibility, they almost never actually get to exercise that right. The amount of red tape and hurdles they have to jump through make it all but impossible for that to happen, except in a few select states. For example, a man in Iowa, who was convicted of felony robbery as a teenager, tried to regain his right to vote later in life. He followed all the procedures and even went so far as to hire a lawyer to assist him with the process. But he was STILL denied because he and his lawyer hadn’t submitted all the necessary, but complicated, paperwork properly. This is just one example of many of people trying to get their rights back and being denied. So for a majority of people, once you’re convicted of a felony you won’t be voting again.
Now, I know there are a lot of people out there who agree with current laws and don’t think convicted felons should have the right to vote. They say felons are bad people, they’re criminals. They ask if I would really want a mass murderer voting in an election. But lots of crimes result in felony convictions, not just the heinous ones we read about in the paper. Vandalism, theft, distribution of drugs can all also result lead to a felony conviction. Are these also “bad people”? Even if you think yes and there’s no way you’d support the way they voted, one person couldn’t decide the election results on their own. There aren’t even enough convicted felons to “block vote” in favor of a particular candidate. And that’s assuming that all convicted felons would even vote for the same person (according to studies, it’s highly unlikely that they would). Which means there’s no danger that they would negatively impact the results and elect someone a majority of the public didn’t approve of.
But I think something more important is at stake than even election results when we deny certain people the ability to vote. Our country is founded on democracy. It’s what set us apart when we first became a nation, it’s something we pride ourselves on, and it’s something we work to spread around the world. But how can we consider ourselves a true democracy when certain members of our society don’t have the right to vote? Is punishing these people or protecting the outcome of particular elections worth sacrificing one of the central tenets of our country? What’s really more important to you: keeping certain people from voting or protecting the integrity of our entire system?
The history of our nation is fraught with battles over its people’s rights, the right to vote being one of the foremost among them. The right to vote is linked to many other significant rights and principles, such as that of equality and justice. It should be denied to no eligible citizens, including to those who have infringed on the rights of others. Prisoners should be allowed the right to vote because this right is crucial to our classification as a democracy, the primary argument denying prisoners this right is based on a gross over-generalization, and prisoners’ voices matter.
The right to vote defines our nation as a democracy and should be afforded to all citizens. The denial of this right to any citizen, prisoners included, can lead to dangerous slippery slope consequences. We do not deny prisoners the right to free speech or religion, nor do we deny them the right to equal justice. We should restrict only the rights that in our imperfect justice system is necessary to ensure a just and functional democracy. If we take from a citizen the right to have his or her voice heard without harm to any other, what other infringements can we justify?
The primary argument against allowing prisoners the right to vote – that when one infringes on the right of another, he or she foregoes his or her own rights – is based on a gross generalization. This argument fails to take into account the significant number of prisoners who are incarcerated because of minor crimes or crimes that are mala prohibita – wrong not in itself but because it is prohibited by law. Drug crimes are a prime example; few would argue that a marijuana dealer should be afforded the same treatment as a serial killer.
Finally, prisoners’ voices matter. Prisoners’ voices are essential to the advancement of our criminal justice system. It can make possible a system that is based on rehabilitation and reintegration instead of one based on retribution. A significant fraction of prisoners are racial minorities or were financially disenfranchised prior to their incarceration. Racial profiling is rampant in our system today, and the voices of our nation’s poor need to be heard to ensure a more honest distribution of wealth. Denying prisoners the right to vote marginalizes whole segments of the population that are over-represented in our prison cells.
Prisoners should have the right to vote because this right is fundamental to a democracy, people are incarcerated for vastly different circumstances that undermine a generalized approach, and every citizen’s voice matters. We must stick by these principles or we fail ourselves and reject our own rights.
A “Should Prisoners Be Allowed to Vote” essay brings up a painful and sensible subject. Democracy is based on the equal rights for all citizens: freedom of speech and religion, right to a fair trial, right to privacy, etc. On the other hand, does somebody who has infringed on someone else’s rights save his privilege to be a participating member of democratic society? That is the crucial question in the discussion about voting rights for felons. Not all crimes have the same injurious act, and that’s the reason why specific categories of prisoners might retain their civil rights, including voting right.
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