Voting rights for prisoners and the gasp heard ’round the world
A Puerto Rican prison inmate casts his ballot, as prisoners voted two days early in the Democratic primary, at Correctional Institute 501, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, May 30, 2008. Convicts imprisoned in Puerto Rico are allowed to vote in all local elections, in contrast with most of the United States. Maine and Vermont are the only U.S. states that allow inmates to vote while incarcerated on felony offenses. Inmate voting is now a topic of discussion in the 2020 Democratic primary. | Brennan Linsley / AP

At a recent CNN town hall, reporter Anderson Cooper asked the up-and-coming Democratic candidate “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg if he supported the rights of incarcerated people to vote. His response that he did not inspire cheers and applause from the mostly white audience, while the lone expression of dissent was an audible gasp from Kenya Hunter, an African-American graduate student in journalism at Emerson College.

Hunter’s gasp speaks volumes not just about the abiding racial divide in this country but also about the stubborn obstacles to democracy that are particularly tenacious and dangerous precisely because they are largely unrecognized.

My guess is that if Buttigieg had been asked if he supported the disenfranchisement of African Americans and the continuation of Jim Crow policies in the United States, he would not have answered affirmatively. And if he had, I find it hard to believe even the mostly white audience would have cheered and applauded, unless it was a town hall specifically organized by white nationalists.

After all, voter suppression, particularly targeting African Americans and people of color as a whole, is exclusively a Republican agenda, right? Not so fast—and I’m not going back to the 1990s to discuss the racially problematic crime bill Joe Biden and other Democrats supported, fomenting fear of people of color, indeed criminalizing people of color in particular in deploying racially charged terms like “super-predator.” I’m talking about something that is clearly more implicit.

If my guess is accurate, that Buttigieg would not have affirmatively answered the question as I’ve posed it, we can begin to see the conundrum, or rather the blind spot, not just for progressive democrats but for all of us trying to pull the magical levers of policy and political action that lift us toward and transform us into a fully realized democracy, a government of, by, and for all the people.

You see, the question Cooper posed to Buttigieg and the one I re-formulated are really the same question.

How is this so?

Well, take compelling studies such as those we find in Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness or Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary film 13th. These works detail the extent to which the contemporary prison-industrial complex sustains racial oppression and exploitation and thwarts democracy for all, with its attendant policies and practices of mass incarceration which disproportionally and intentionally target African Americans.

DuVernay titles her documentary 13th after the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1865, which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

For DuVernay, it is this phrase “except as a punishment for crime,” carefully formulated with an eye toward maintaining a system of racial exploitation, which explains our nation’s contemporary practices and politics of mass incarceration as they evolved from Reconstruction, when freedmen were criminalized and subject to random arrest (for such “crimes” as “loitering,” for example) and thus to convict leasing that forced them to work for the state. Just think of the chain gangs as another name for slavery.

Charting the history of African-American disenfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, the terror inflicted on African America through mass lynchings, up to the war on drugs and the plague of mass incarceration with the rise of the prison-industrial complex, DuVernay underscores how the thirteenth amendment enabled the perpetual political disempowerment and super-exploitation and oppression of African Americans since slavery.

Indeed, as Alexander explains, the politics of racial oppression were, simply put, re-ritualized into the politics of mass incarceration such that “race” didn’t even have to be talked about, enabling Americans to cling to the belief that U.S. society had overcome racism, was indeed a post-racial society, even while supporting a society of racial hierarchy and white supremacy. She writes:

“Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely re-designed it.”

To be sure, the language of criminality, even if it possessed a powerful racist tinge, extended these politics of disenfranchisement and discrimination to other groups of people.

Graduate student Kenya Hunter gasps when the audience applauds Democratic presidential primary candidate Pete Buttigieg says inmates should not have the right to vote. | Screenshot from CNN Town Hall

Kenya Hunter’s gasp of shock and dismay was the audible encapsulation of the very analyses of Alexander and DuVernay presented here in greatly condensed form.

We can only hope that Buttigieg and that largely white audience heard it at all and, if they did, had the wherewithal and patience to translate that gasp into the analysis it contained in its greatly abridged shock.

MiddleEastEye correspondent Ali Harb captured the gasp in a tweet that quickly went viral.

Will Americans, especially progressives, be able to interpret the multitudes contained in that gasp?

Recognizing these layers of issues and history involved in the question of whether or not imprisoned peoples should have voting rights is essential to challenging racism and achieving democracy. As we head into electoral season, when we can be assured that this and related questions will come up again, progressives must see them as key and crucial challenges if we are to enlarge the prospects of American democracy.

Indeed, recognizing that imprisonment is an intentional practice of disenfranchisement and enslavement would be the ultimate removal of this blind spot.

Turning the applause of Buttigieg’s audience to a gasp shared with Kenya Hunter would be a start.

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Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.