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Let Prison Inmates Vote

| June 4, 2019

In the era of mass incarceration, forbidding inmate voting, disenfranchising them after release, and counting them as residents where they’re imprisoned are all components of prison gerrymandering.

In the era of mass incarceration, forbidding inmate voting, disenfranchising them after release, and counting them as residents where they’re imprisoned are all components of prison gerrymandering. (Shutterstock)

By Robert P. Alvarez

Should Americans caught up in the justice system be stripped of their right to vote?

Senator Bernie Sanders catapulted the issue into the spotlight when he declared his unequivocal support for the voting rights of prison inmates at a recent town hall.


“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy,” he said. “Once you start chipping away and you say, that person committed a terrible crime, not gonna let him vote… you’re running down a slippery slope.”

Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren were more cautious, but didn’t explicitly disagree. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he was in favor of allowing “non-violent” offenders to vote while incarcerated.

South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, alone among Democrats, was a hard no on any inmate voting.

Republicans, by contrast, have raised the idea of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or white supremacist murderer Dylan Roof voting as a way of shooting down the entire discussion.

Of course, Tsarnaev and Roof are but two of the over 2.3 million prisoners locked up in “the land of the free.” Using one or two examples to justify condemning over 2 million people is always unsound. But it’s especially repulsive in this instance.

In all, 14 states and D.C. bar prisoners from voting. Twenty-two other states, to varying degrees, restrict voting during parole or probation.

Twelve more ban people with felonies from voting for a time even after their release — and in Kentucky and Iowa, permanently. (Virginia bans them permanently too, but the state’s governor has been automatically restoring voting rights to people who complete their sentences).

other-wordsThe impact of all this on our democracy is striking.

One in 10 Kentuckians can never vote again due to a felony conviction. For black Kentuckians, the rate of permanent felony disenfranchisement is even greater, at one in four.

It’s not hard to understand why Republicans want to keep it this way. Thanks to a racially biased justice system, black and Hispanic adults are much more likely to be convicted of felonies. They’re also much more likely to vote for Democrats.

Republicans know this. Just last November, a super-majority of Floridians voted to re-enfranchise 1.5 million folks with prior felony convictions — including 1 out of 5 black Floridians. Yet before the ink could even dry, Florida’s GOP-led House passed legislation restricting the measure and applying a poll tax on returning voters.

The gamesmanship gets even more perverse when you consider the Census, which counts prisoners as residents of the areas where they’re confined.

That inflates the populations of Republican-leaning small towns and rural areas where most state prisons are located. That means more federal money and more legislative seats, even though the inmates can’t vote for who holds them. Are you seeing the hypocrisy yet?

Forbidding inmate voting, disenfranchising them after release, and counting them as residents where they’re imprisoned are all components of a terrible practice known as prison gerrymandering.

It looks and smells a lot like the 3/5 compromise — an old constitutional practice allowing Southern states to count three-fifths of their enslaved population when apportioning House seats, Electoral College votes, and federal funding.

For too long, inmates have been an easy punching bag for politicians. Voting should be an inalienable right — even for inmates, and especially for those who’ve served their time. No amount of single-case scare tactics should ruin it for the lot.

Mass incarceration is now a bipartisan concern. Its effects on our democracy should be too. And if that’s a problem because it could swing a few elections, the problem isn’t prisoners — it’s the system that locks up an entire voting bloc.

Robert P. Alvarez works in communications at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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22 Responses for “Let Prison Inmates Vote”

  1. Richard says:

    With all actions & decisions there are consequences. If we allow the chipping away of the consequences then chaos will likely follow and the total destruction of civility and life as we USED to know and believe in will cease. Let common sense prevail over these people who proclaim to “know it all” for the betterment of society. They are “in it” for the power & money, nothing more and nothing less.

  2. FlaglerRedo says:

    FlaglerLive should stick to the local issues and skip publishing these far left radical views. The only reason I’m here is for local news. Hopefully some enterprising young conservative will realize this.

  3. Mark says:

    So courts now impose “poll taxes” on criminals? I think not. I don’t care who they vote for, just pay the price. Then your vote is restored. Is voting a natural right or just an American one?

  4. Agkistrodon says:

    You knew this was going to be brought up. Funny, These people ONLY care about Voting rights. Nothing else……………No Other Constitutional Rights, even when others are in the actual First 10 Amendments, called the Bill of Rights, Which were so Important, they listed them in ORDER of importance, and no where in which is “The Right to Vote” established……….seems interesting.

  5. Bob Log says:

    Yes. And as citizens, they should also be allowed to own guns. It’s their right.

  6. Dave says:

    This is what I’ve been saying, just because someone is incarcerated does not mean they aren’t an American citizen. Let inmates and prisoners vote! This is their country too and they still have an interest in what is happening.

  7. Traveling Rep says:

    Only if they can open carry in prison too…

  8. ASF says:

    I have no problem with the idea of people with felony convictions being given back their right to vote immediately, once they have paid their debt to society. Commit a criminal act, and you risk getting put in jail and being deprived of your freedom and your right to live as a full participant in our society for the length of your incarceration. It’s that simple and it falls under the category of DUH. Cause and Effect–it’s a wondrous adult concept (for some of us.)

  9. PeachesMcGee says:

    They should vote, once their debt to society is paid in full.

  10. The original woody says:

    Pay up or shut up.

  11. Jim says:

    Not only should jailed criminals NOT be able to vote. I believe only people who pay federal income tax should be able to vote. If you are not contributing financially to our country. then you have no right to decide how our country is operated

  12. Lenamarshall says:

    No way I’d you drink and lose your license you can’t drive

  13. mark101 says:

    I echo a few others, “They should vote, once their debt to society is paid in full “

  14. deb says:

    So let me get this straight. Lets just say, that the man that killed 17 on Feb 14, 2018 ( Stoneman Douglas H.S.) should be allowed to vote. Or this year in Sebring Fl Jan 25, 2019 a man killed 5 women in a Sebring bank. I say NO way, they gave up their voting rights when they pulled the trigger.

  15. Democrats....sheesh! says:

    Anything for a vote…. I say heck no! Someone above had it right….get a job….pay some taxes….then vote. We need to stop All people on the system from voting to get a check we pay for out of the sweat of our brows.

  16. Laura says:

    Are people here actually proposing poll taxes? Amazing.

  17. Zomzom says:

    Wow, Democrats are desperately doing anything for votes. Those people are in PRISON, you know what side they’re going to be voting for.

  18. Agkistrodon says:

    No Poll tax Laura, just simple ACCOUNTABILITY for ones actions. If you doubt going lightly on criminals does not work, take a look at the current situation in Seattle, or Portland. They are NOW regretting their “Criminals are misunderstood people” cavalier attitudes. I say you reap what you sow. But that won’t be sowed here.

  19. hawkeye says:

    In my estimation…once they have done their sentence and paid for their crime they should have their rights restored.

  20. Anita says:

    @Jim

    Do you realize that if only people who paid Federal tax were allowed to vote, trump would be immediately disenfranchised?

  21. Alphonse Abonte says:

    We will NEVER create enough laws to control EVIL, EVIL does not obey laws.

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