On Sunday, March 7, the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Biden signed an executive order to improve access to voting rights and called on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. House Resolution One, or the For the People Act, has already passed in the House and includes many important facets to making our democracy better, including automatic voter registration, expansion of vote by mail and early voting. A failed amendment to the bill would have ended felony disenfranchisement in the event that the bill was passed.
I believe that incarcerated individuals should be able to vote. Allowing people to vote from prison will allow inmates to feel that they are able to make a change in the world, encourage them to stay updated on current events and allows them to have a say in the way that they are treated.
State approaches to suffrage, both behind bars and long after release, vary greatly. In Vermont, Maine and the District of Columbia (DC), felons never lose their right to vote. In 18 states, felons are unable to vote while serving their sentence and are immediately restored suffrage after release. In 19 states, felons are unable to vote during their sentence and for a period of time afterwards, usually during their probation or parole. They may also have to pay any outstanding fines before being enfranchised again. In 11 states, felons may “lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored, face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence (including parole and probation) or require additional action before voting rights can be restored.”
The 24th Amendment states that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied … by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.” According to this, requiring a felon to pay a fine before being restored their right to vote is unconstitutional. According to the 15th Amendment, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied … by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” The Supreme Court has never defined what exactly “servitude” means in this context, though it is traditionally interpreted to refer to antebellum slavery, as the 15th Amendment was one of the Reconstruction Amendments designed to give formerly enslaved people opportunities. However, the 13th Amendment, which reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime … shall exist within the United States,” challenges this interpretation, since it implies that slavery and involuntary servitude are two different things. American Jurisprudence defines involuntary servitude as “the coerced service of one person for another through use, or threatened use, of law.” Thus, the previous condition of involuntary servitude, which includes imprisonment, should not be used to deny one the right to vote. This then means that denying felons the right to vote after they are released is unconstitutional.
I think many people, particularly Democrats, would agree that felons deserve to vote after they are released. After all, they served their time and many are also serving sentences for nonviolent offenses, such as possession of marijuana — such laws often affect communities of color the most. Republicans tend to be less willing to enfranchise ex-felons, most likely because they tend to be disproportionately people of color, and are more likely to vote Democrat. On multiple occasions, Republican politicians have said outright that more people voting is bad for their party. Senator Lindsey Graham once said, “Mail-in balloting is a nightmare for us,” despite the fact that mail-in ballots are a safe and secure way to vote and encourage higher voter turnout. I argue that voting rights should not be restored automatically after completion of a sentence, as most Democrats believe, but instead that they should never be revoked in the first place. Allowing inmates to vote from prison not only allows them to take part in their democratic duty but can provide an incentive for politicians to improve prison conditions and allow inmates to have an active say in the society that they want to live in upon release.
It is no secret that conditions inside of U.S. prisons are repugnant. I don’t mean to say that inmates deserve to live in paradise, but they do deserve resources to meet their basic physical and mental needs. For example, many prisons are overcrowded and violent. Many prison guards abuse their power with little oversight and perpetrate sexual violence. About 42 percent of substantiated claims of sexual victimization against inmates from 2011 to 2015 were perpetuated by prison staff. In 2018, a Florida woman was raped and impregnated by a prison guard at the Lowell Correctional Institute, which has a long and painful history of abusing female inmates. There are too few medical and mental health resources in prisons, meaning that sick and mentally ill prisoners, even suicidal ones, can remain untreated and their conditions only get worse.
Prolonged solitary confinement, a form of psychological torture, is used routinely to punish inmates. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or “Nelson Mandela Rules,” dictates that prolonged solitary confinement is referred to as solitary confinement for longer than 15 days, and the practice should be used only in the most dire of circumstances and for the least amount of time possible. Dangers of solitary confinement include onset or exacerbation of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder and a higher risk of suicide. These dangers result from social isolation, sensory deprivation and lack of mental stimulation. Even when not in solitary, inmates may still lack access to basic hygiene products such as soap, lotion, toothpaste and menstrual products. This is not only an issue for the inmates, but also for the rest of society upon their release, as bad prison conditions may be correlated to higher rates of recidivism. Allowing inmates to vote could improve these conditions, as candidates would have an incentive to vote for legislation that would improve the conditions of prisons while maintaining safety in society.
Theoretically, a reason for the use of U.S. prisons is rehabilitation in addition to punishment. The purpose is to keep dangerous people away from the rest of society, to punish them for the crime that they committed and to rehabilitate them so they don’t do the same thing once they get out. Prisons fall short on the rehabilitation side. Recidivism rates in the United States are extraordinarily high, in part due to the fact that prison does not prepare felons for life outside of prison, and instead punishes them ad nauseum. The people with the most power to change this unfortunate circumstance are our elected officials. If candidates running for office know that the prison population is one that they should win over in order to win the race, they are likely to advocate for policies that treat them humanely and reduce the recidivism rates, which would also benefit non-inmates.
Suppressing the votes of former inmates is not only unconstitutional and inhumane, it is denying a basic function of our democracy to an increasingly large group of people. Ensuring suffrage for imprisoned people will help improve the living conditions of correctional facilities, which will lead to better outcomes post-prison.
Deana Ridenhour is a freshman double-majoring in history and philosophy, politics and law.