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Imprisoning Votes

The New York Times reported that America’s incarceration rate has reached an all time high…And while so many pundits are focused on primary races, we should also consider the impact incarceration rates will have on our electoral process…

  • Kahlil Williams
March 1, 2008
Utah PrisonYesterday, the New York Times reported that America’s incarceration rate has reached an all time high, with more than one of every 100 adults behind bars. Over the past three decades, prison populations have nearly tripled, with the current tally reaching 1.6 million, in addition to the more than 700,000 serving time in jail. These figures are especially pronounced among communities of color, with one in fifteen Black men (11% of Black males aged 20–34 are currently serving time) and one out of 36 Hispanic adults behind bars.  

This startling trend should compel lawmakers to rethink sentencing practices.  But while so many pundits and politicians are focused on a close primary race this weekend, we should also consider the impact these record incarceration rates have on our electoral process.

Most states still strip citizens of the right to vote upon conviction of a felony, restoring that fundamental right with varying expediency. Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote while serving their prison sentences, while Kentucky and Virginia disenfranchise everyone with a felony conviction permanently, refusing to restore the right to vote unless the Governor grants an individual application for clemency.  Thirty-five states continue to deny voting rights after people have served their prison time and returned to the community.

The consequences of these disenfranchising policies are tremendous.  In Texas, nearly over 520,000 citizens will be barred from voting in Tuesday’s primary, because of felony convictions. The following week, Mississippi—the state with the highest proportion of African-Americans—will see nearly 92,000 Blacks shut out of the political process come primary time.  

Contrast these states with Rhode Island, which also hosts a primary on Tuesday.  Last year, Rhode Island voters passed a referendum that restored the right to vote to people on probation and parole.  Under the new law, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections hands everyone a voter registration form on the day they leave prison.  Fifteen thousand Rhode Islanders are newly eligible to vote on Tuesday.

The number of Americans locked behind bars is truly tragic. But the lesser known consequence is the number of people locked out of the political process for years, often for decades, and sometimes for life.  Even after returning to our communities, millions of our fellow citizens cannot participate in one of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and essential to a functional democracy.