Lots of things in life aren’t fair. Finding that somebody finished off almost all of the pint of Phish Food you’d hidden deep in the freezer? Totally not fair.
But there’s unfairness, and then there’s injustice. We like to think our justice system here in the United States takes care of that, but what happens when even the justice system is unjust? What happens when people who have served their time aren’t allowed to have a voice in our democracy? Right now in the Unites States of America, an estimated 5.85 million citizens (2.5% of the voting-age population) are prohibited from voting. Why? Because they were once convicted of a felony, even though they have now paid their debt to society.
The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
As with most of our strange and strangely inconsistent election rules, the laws regarding the voting rights of felons differ from state to state:
- THE GOOD: Just two states, Vermont and Maine, have no restrictions at all.
- THE OKAY: Fourteen states reinstate a citizen’s right to vote as soon they are released from prison. Twenty-four others reinstate voting rights once parole and/or probation have been completed.
- THE BAD AND TRULY UGLY: But there are 10 states where felons may lose their right to vote permanently.
A Civil Rights Issue
This issue hits the African American community harder than other communities. Of the 5.85 million citizens prohibited from voting, 38% are African Americans. This is even more startling when we realized that while black people make up 13% of the US population, they make up 40% of the prison population, which has been booming over the past 40 years. When black people and white people commit a crime, black people are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to be sentenced to jail compared to white people. All of which means that the racism embedded in the criminal justice system leads directly to disenfranchisement.
The System Is Broken
What kind of country imprisons such a huge portion of its population, and then piles on the injustice by making sure that an entire class of citizens cannot freely participate in its elections?
Let’s take a look at how some states turn a non-violent crime into a potential lifelong ban on citizenship.
The Dark Side of the Sunshine State
In Florida, possession of drugs is a felony. And because the state has some of the harshest guidelines in the country, that alone might be enough to ensure you never vote again. Everyone convicted of a felony – even decidedly non-violent ones – has to wait five years until they can apply to the governor to have their voting rights restored. And the current governor, Rick Scott, is moving very slowly on this front. As of last year, more than 11,000 applicants were still waiting for an answer.
The Bluegrass State’s Got Us Feeling Blue
In Kentucky, believe it or not, shoplifting certain items will keep you from seeing the inside of a voting booth ever again. While the previous governor had issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of non-violent felons who’ve met certain conditions, the current governor overturned that with an executive order of his own. Now all felons have to personally appeal to the governor to have their rights reinstated.
No Justice in the Hawkeye State
In Iowa, anyone convicted of, for example, possessing stolen goods or any other felony, must apply to the governor for reinstatement of their rights. Like in Kentucky, the current governor went back on the previous governor’s more inclusive voting-rights order.
Moving Forward, One State at a Time
Of course, not all the news is bad. The governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, recently took executive action to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons. But as we’ve seen, one governor’s order can be undone by his/her successor. That’s why we have to continue to push, in all states, for a fair and humane approach to felons’ voting rights, as well as more inclusive voting policies across the country. Our democracy may be broken, but it’s nothing that millions of people working together can’t fix.