Not everyone gets to see the inside of a voting booth. Photo by N. Shepard.
If you’re an American citizen, you have the right to vote. Unless you’re an American citizen who’s been convicted of a felony. Then, in almost every state, your right to vote is taken away—sometimes for the rest of your life.
Disenfranchisement laws aimed at people convicted of felonies currently prevent nearly 5.8 million people from voting. And because people of color are more likely to be arrested nationwide, these anti-voting laws take away a basic right disproportionately from Black and Latino Americans. In Maryland, approximately half of the 40,000 people denied the right to vote are African-American.
These alarming numbers prompted advocates to push Maryland’s legislature to change this reality. They were successful–last week, legislators approved a bill to restore voting rights to people who have been convicted and incarcerated. The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk for his approval. This is a landmark moment for a voting rights issue that, even during the hoopla around the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rarely makes headlines.
Almost every state in the country has laws denying people with felony convictions the right to vote in prison, but laws vary wildly about what happens once they’re released. Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia do not allow people convicted of felonies to vote for the rest of their lives. In the 2000 presidential race, felony disenfranchisement laws made a crucial difference between votes for George W. Bush and Al Gore. The infamous recount hinged on a few hundreds votes in a state where 750,000 people had been stripped of the right to vote because of a previous conviction. “Had fewer than two percent of the disenfranchised in Florida voted, Gore would have probably been elected president,” noted Sasha Abramsky. To this day in Florida, the ban on voting keeps nearly ten percent of the state’s population from the polls.
In Iowa, Governor Terry Branstad changed a policy which gave people back voting rights once they were no longer under state supervisions to one that strips people convicted of felonies of their voting rights for life—unless the governor personally restores their voting rights. Since the new policy took effect, more than 8,000 people have finished their prison sentences or community supervision but less than a dozen have successfully had their rights restored. In 2012, 65-year-old Richard Straight, an Iowa resident with a felony conviction, said that, although he’d like to vote in the presidential election, he does not think it’s worth the fight. “I’ve only got a few years left of living. I might as well kick back and relax and live my life instead of fighting the system like that,” he said.
Banning voting rights for people who’ve spent time in prison means, of course, that millions of people whose lives have been affected by the justice system have no say in whether the next elected official would introduce more Tough on Crime policies or is open to sentencing reform and less punitive policies. It also means that elected officials need not take into account the needs and demands of the constituents who are formerly incarcerated. Given the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, it’s no surprise that voter disenfranchisement does so as well: The Sentencing Project estimates that approximately one-third of the 5.8 million people no longer able to vote are African-American.
In a speech last year, Attorney General Eric Holder called on states to nix their disenfranchisement laws, saying the system was a vestige of racist policies in the post-Civil War South. “Those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives,” Holder said.
But in thirteen states and the District of Columbia, a previous conviction is not necessarily a barrier to the ballot. In New York state, for example, once a person has finished parole, they’re is able to vote. If the person was convicted and sentenced to probation, she need not wait until her sentence is complete to cast her ballot. This means that formerly incarcerated people can not only get involved in advocating for systemic change in the courts and prisons, but also have the potential to vote legislators in or out of office. This is a power that police and correctional officers’ unions have utilized both in New York and other places. But for those in states with more onerous disenfranchisement laws, their demands can be more easily ignored by those in political power.
If Governor Hogan signs the bill into law, 40,000 formerly incarcerated voters will be able to go to the Maryland polls this election day. That’s a change worth cheering for.
Related Reading: A Woman Was Sentenced to 41 Years in Prison for a Miscarriage.
Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.