It might surprise you to learn that nearly 5 million of our citizens cannot vote. That is because they are prisoners or former prisoners. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote. In 14 states this prohibition is for life. Offenders on parole in 32 states are denied the right to vote, as are those on probation in 28. A Dec. 2002 “Civil Rights Journal” article noted, “Given the vast racial disparities in the criminal justice system it is hardly surprising, but shocking nonetheless, to find that an estimated 13 percent of African American males are now disenfranchised.” This is but a continuation of the now illegal poll tax and literacy requirements used so successfully to deny Blacks the right to vote prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
The “founding fathers” granted the right to vote only to wealthy white male property owners. These constituted approximately 120,000 individuals in a population of 2 million free Americans and 1 million slaves and indentured servants. African Americans, women, the illiterate and those who did not own property could not vote. Nor could prisoners or former prisoners. That was because the tradition of “civil death” for violators of the law and their descendants, which dated to medieval Europe, was brought here with the English colonizers.
Today, more than 200 years later, this tradition alone remains: while all others have gained the right to vote, it is still denied to prisoners and ex-prisoners. Public opinion, however, largely supports returning voting rights to ex-offenders. According to the nonprofit Sentencing Project, fully 80 percent of the public supports the right of ex-offenders to vote; smaller percentages, 64 percent and 62 percent respectively, support the right of probationers and those on parole to vote.
In theory, the sentence handed down after a verdict is proportional to the crime committed. The denial of the right to vote, however, is across the board, whatever the sentence. All felony offenders are denied this right (except as noted above) regardless of the crime for which they have been convicted. Offenders and ex-offenders are not consistently denied other rights: they may marry, divorce, own property and file lawsuits. Theoretically, their rights are restricted only in matters pertaining to prison security – except when it is a question of the right to vote.
It is true that while some states allow ex-offenders to regain their voting rights, very often the offender must endure waiting periods of five to ten years before he or she may apply to regain them. In addition, the process of regaining is often cumbersome and costly. In Alabama, a pardon must be sought from the Board of Pardons, and a DNA sample must be supplied. In Mississippi, the governor must sign an executive order or a legislator must introduce a bill on behalf of a former prisoner. The bill must then pass with a two-thirds majority and be signed by the governor. Information on the number of ex-offenders who reclaim their rights following these regulations is difficult to ascertain, but one two-year study in Virginia indicated that, of 200,000 ex-felons in the state, only 404 had regained their voting rights during the period studied.
According to “The Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States,” a paper by Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza presented to the American Sociological Association in August 2000, even though ex-offenders would be likely to vote in smaller numbers than the general public, they would be more likely to vote Democratic since they are primarily non-white and/or poor. Their disenfranchisement, Uggen and Manza conclude, prevented Democratic control of the Senate between 1986 and 2000.
The United States is the only industrialized nation to have such draconian legislation on its books. When other nations restrict voting rights, the restrictions usually apply only to those convicted of electoral offenses or of corruption. Some nations, among them South Africa and Japan, allow prisoners to vote.
Here in the U.S., some states have begun to relax restrictions on ex-offenders: Texas, for example, has ended a two-year waiting period, Maryland has ended a lifetime ban for nonviolent repeat offenders, and New Mexico has repealed a lifetime ban. Given that public opinion favors granting ex-offenders their civil rights, we may well be moving toward the enfranchisement of all our citizens. Only this way can we work toward a government representative of all its people rather than of moneyed corporate interests.
Julia Lutsky is a reader in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.