Voting is one of the most fundamental rights of our democracy — it determines the outcomes of our country ranging from who our elected officials are to the policies that determine our day-to-day activities. However, this democracy consists of 6.1 million Americans convicted of felonies who are “othered” and made voiceless, not because they chose to, but because they had no other option. This 6.1 million — mostly Black and Brown people — are victims of felony disenfranchisement at the hands of a country that boasts of its representative democracy but is far from it.
“I was a part of the community, and yet I was separate. I wasn’t a community member.” — Dexter Stanton who lost voting rights after a 2009 drunk driving felony conviction according to the SCTimes.
The United States continues to be one of the strictest nations to deny its citizens the right to vote. Its history is rooted in suppressing the most marginalized communities and bringing power to a select few — White people. Addressing the history of how felony disenfranchisement has systemically hurt Black and Brown people positions our country towards restoring the vote and working to become a true democracy.
Felony disenfranchisement traces back to the founding of our nation where only wealthy, White, and property-owning men were granted the right to vote — excluding women, ‘illiterates,’ poor people, African Americans, and people with felony convictions. After the Civil War during the Reconstruction period, states passed coded laws that criminalized Black and Brown communities by targeting offenses that were believed to be committed most frequently by them. Subsequently, states where able to criminalize and incarcerate what it meant to be a Black or Brown person of color.
Acceptability of felony disenfranchisement increased with the expansion of the U.S. criminal legal system allowing states to use it as a tactic to suppress Black and Brown people. The U.S. criminal legal system currently holds almost 2.3 million people in spaces ranging from jails and prisons to immigration detention facilities and civil commitment centers. The militarization of security, increased policing, and heightened criminalization further contributed to the incarceration of Black and Brown people across the country. Amongst the 2.3 million people who are victims of the criminal legal system, Black people make up 40% of the incarcerated population while only representing 13% of the U.S. residents.
The composition of the U.S. criminal legal system reflects the realities of the relationship between the criminalization and incarceration of Black and Brown people and the disenfranchised voter. Black people eligible to vote are four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the eligible population. And one of every 13 Black adults is disenfranchised nationally.
“Once a person has served their time, they should not be made to continue paying for their past mistakes.” — Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, as reported in the Sun-Sentinel.
These interconnected systems work to preserve the premise that if someone makes a mistake and commits a crime, they are not worthy of the rights of our constitution. Felony disenfranchisement works to strip the humanity away from those with convictions and positions them as permanent “others” of society. By incarcerating and disenfranchising large parts of Black and Brown communities, states uphold a system that picks who votes for its elected officials, allowing for policies to be passed that benefits those select communities. This defies what it means to be a true democracy.
“There is enough discrimination against us, and feeling alienated leads to recidivism. I served my sentence. I paid my debt to society. Why am I still doing time?” — Perry Hopkins, convicted felon and current community organizer for Communities United, talking about voting rights in Maryland, according to The Washington Post.
The good news is, there is hope for moving towards a new system that permits voting rights to both currently and formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies. Since 1997, over 20 states slightly eased and amended their felony disenfranchisement policies for formerly incarcerated people, increasing the number of eligible voters in elections.
In Maine and Vermont, all incarcerated people — currently and formerly — can vote. Currently incarcerated people in those states can register to vote using their address before incarceration, and vote using an absentee ballot. In states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Alaska, they allow some incarcerated people to vote depending on their conviction. D.C. even recently passed the Restore the Vote Amendment that authorizes voting by residents incarcerated in jail or prison with a felony conviction. Though a temporary measure, they plan to produce legislation that will expand voting rights for both currently and formerly incarcerated people.
Moving forward, we need to take a critical look at our country when describing it as a true democracy. Just take a look at the other 48 states and how they prohibit its citizens from voting to see that our country is far from the democracy we boast it to be. Our nation continues to be unrepresentative of the people whom it should represent, but it doesn’t have to continue to be that way.
We have to begin asking the questions: What communities are silenced because of felony disenfranchisement, and who benefits from it? We must act on the answers to those questions by producing legislation grounded in uplifting, rather than silencing, the voices of all people and allowing them to vote. As a nation, we can follow in the steps of jurisdictions like D.C. that have passed legislation to expand the rights of its citizens rather than deny them. We can also look to states like Maine and Vermont, who never took away the right to vote from the start.