OPINION: Convicted Criminals Deserve The Right To Vote
With a national movement spreading advocating for justice system and prison reform. It's depressing there isn't a movement to end one of the bigger injustices: the mass disenfranchisement of felons and convicted criminals. Currently there are around 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, which equates to approximately 0.7% of the United States population; these people along with residents of United States territories are currently being deprived of their Constitutional right to vote. Maine and Vermont are the two outliers which currently allow all convicted criminals to vote during their sentence. In 37 states and the District of Columbia, enfranchisement is returned to convicts either after the sentence or parole/probation has been completed. In the remaining eleven states, enfranchisement can be suspended indefinitely or returned at the discretion of the state. This needs change, citizenship should be the only factor determining whether or not an individual has the right to vote.
Trop v. Dulles determined that the removal of citizenship as a punishment for a crime violated the 8th Amendment as a cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Earl Warren claimed:
"Citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior".
Well, citizens have the right to vote, even the second class citizens who reside in territories of the United States and the District of Columbia. So, it follows that removing the right to vote would inherently revoke criminals of their citizenship and violate the 8th amendment. European law already follows a similar line of reasoning. Similarly, Hirst v. United Kingdom, a 2005 European Court of Human Rights case, ruled against Britain's policy which restricted the right for convicts to vote.
Allowing prisoners the right to vote would also promote better prison reform and would benefit the system as a whole. Want better prison reform, ask those currently in the system what they would change. Although, there is an argument to be made this would cause more chaos and disorder. Yet America was founded on the philosophy of self-determination; so, why shouldn't this apply to our prison system.
Especially with the high levels of incarceration which leave over 2 million Americans disenfranchised, there is no justification to deny the most fundamental aspect of citizenship. The NAACP argues there is a racial reasoning behind prisoner disenfranchisement. African-Americans make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population; this implies there is a racial bias being applied. Personally, I disagree with this claim, yet there is compelling enough evidence for a case to be made. Inmates are counted as residents of the county where the prisons are located in what is argued to be a modern version of the 3/5 compromise. The NAACP fears this takes power away from minority neighborhoods and gives more power to the white neighborhoods and districts where the prisons are located. Effectively, this would not only reduce minority voices in the ballots but also raise the voices of the white districts which would have more representation amongst them.
Prisoners are wrongly being denied one of their most basic constitutional rights. Whether race is truly the reason or not, there is no place for mass disenfranchisement in today's America and it begins with allowing prisoners the Vote.
Andrew Fielden is an Editor-at-Large for The National Times