In 1998, 20 year-old Andres Idarraga thought he would have to wait until he turned 58 to ever vote. After serving six years in prison, Idarraga was let out on parole, determined to turn his life around. Even as he enrolled at Brown University, Idarraga could not vote, due to Rhode Island’s restrictive voting rights laws for those with felony convictions. At the time, over 15,000 people in Rhode Island with felony convictions were barred from voting, even though the vast majority of disenfranchised voters, like Idarraga, were outside prison and engaged with their communities. It was not until 2006, after the passage of a Rhode Island ballot initiative granting voting rights to former felons outside prison, that Idarraga could finally participate in the democratic process.
For millions of Americans, a legal system of disenfranchisement has blockaded their participation in these fundamental democratic processes. Disenfranchisement laws have a disproportionate impact on black and brown communities, who already face higher risks of disenfranchisement. According to some scholars, this disenfranchisement even has the effect of deciding presidential elections. Think back to Bush v. Gore, an election that came down to a mere 537 votes in Florida, a state where restrictive voting laws disenfranchised almost one million felons. At the minimum, voting rights should be restored to those with felony convictions, especially those who have committed nonviolent crimes, upon completion of their sentences.
Currently, one in 40 American adults are barred from voting due to a felony conviction, which amounts to more than the combined populations of Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine. Twelve states, or close to one in four states, continue to restrict voting rights even after former felons complete their sentences. Many states have a slow and convoluted process to restore voting rights, sometimes taking as long as a decade. Maine and Vermont are exceptional in that they allow current felons to vote; in most states, disenfranchised voters are no longer in prison, but on parole or probation.
One frequent justification for disenfranchising felons is that committing a crime “breaks” the social contract; in other words, felons forfeit their right to participate in civic life when they do not follow the rules that govern civic life. However, this argument holds little weight when considering former felons, whose release signifies an ability and deservingness to reenter civic life. Moreover, not all felons are incarcerated for violent crimes like murder. In states like Florida, felonies include bar fights or driving without a license after a certain number of times. And let’s not forget the legacy of the War on Drugs, with over half the federal prison population incarcerated for drug offenses.
The relationship between race, criminalization, and mass incarceration also plays an important role in disenfranchisement. In a swaggering display of American exceptionalism, the United States boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. One in four prisoners worldwide are American, despite the fact that the United States only represents five percent of the global population. Since the mid-twentieth century, the US prison population exploded by nearly 1000 percent. Throughout this time, the government, increasingly associating crime with “black pathology,” has targeted poor black urban communities consciously and aggressively. Of all disenfranchised formerly incarcerated individuals, 2.2 million are black. According to the NAACP, if black and brown men were incarcerated at the rate of white men, the incarcerated population would decline by 40%.
In one study, sociologists from New York University and the University of Minnesota analyzed the racial motivations underpinning felon disenfranchisement laws throughout US history. Notably, they found that states with larger black populations also had more severe disenfranchisement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that explains why Maine and Vermont, states whose populations are only one percent black, also have the least disenfranchising laws.
Beyond the racial history, the double standard of prison gerrymandering poses a logical conundrum for disenfranchisement. Currently, the U.S. Census counts prisoners for political representation based on where their prison is, not where they lived before incarceration. According to Krista Brewers of the Women’s Donor Network, this “transfers the voting power of millions of mostly urban black and brown people to overwhelmingly white and rural districts.” Outside of its racialized political consequences, prison gerrymandering also represents a fundamental contradiction—prisoners are counted for political representation, yet have no ability to influence who represents them politically.
The staggering rates of disenfranchisement have not gone unnoticed. Florida is currently considering expanding felon voting rights, albeit to a limited extent. In November 2018, Florida voters will decide in a state ballot initiative whether to restore voting rights for felons that have completed their sentences, including parole and probation. This does not include felons who have committed murder or sexual offenses. Polls show that two out of three Floridians support voter enfranchisement, although some worry that Republican lawmakers may try to pass a watered down version of enfranchisement law in order to decrease popular support for the initiative.
Even after leaving life behind bars, former felons continue to be punished over and over again. On top of other challenges that those with felony convictions face, including discrimination in employment and housing, political disenfranchisement precludes former felons from fully participating in the promises of a democratic society. Fulfilling the promise enshrined in the Constitution of civic participation, the promise demanded by stalwart women and people of color throughout history, the promise hardworking people like Andres Idarraga actualized through black pen and the columns of a ballot, is the first and perhaps most fundamental step to alleviating the deep inequality rendered by the carceral state.