Only a week out from Election Day, the power of every individual’s vote and the stakes of this presidential election seem more crucial this year than ever, especially for those who are voting for the first time. The election has already presented numerous concerns which make one question whether their vote will truly be counted—ranging from California Republicans who installed falsely labeled “official” ballot drop boxes, to the numerous “naked ballots” that Pennsylvania is expected to throw out. However, there are some Americans who have simply been denied their right to vote, namely those who have been convicted of felonies. The sheer number of disenfranchised formerly incarcerated individuals highlights the perpetuation of an overly punitive justice system and, in turn, the necessity for legislative change.
An estimated 5.2 million Americans cannot vote in the 2020 presidential election because they have been convicted of felonies, according to a report from the Sentencing Project. Of these people, about a quarter are actually incarcerated, and over 40 percent have completed their full sentence but remain unable to vote. Voting restrictions on returning citizens vary tremendously by state, ranging from no restrictions, to restrictions on prison, parole, probation, and post-sentence.
Felony disenfranchisement highlights the pervasive role of systemic racism in our country as it disproportionately affects communities of color. The Sentencing Project report found that African Americans are disenfranchised by felony records at almost four times the rate of others, and in seven states—Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming—more than one in seven Black adults are disenfranchised. The disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black people finds its roots in the systemic racism and racial profiling that plague the criminal justice system, which has led to African-American adults being 5.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults.
There are a variety of arguments that defend felony disenfranchisement, but they rely upon the cruel justice system that our country embraces. For example, Republicans in particular worry that allowing these individuals to vote will increase numbers for Democrats since Black voters make up a significant part of the Democratic base. However, to conclude this would be to inaccurately assume that people with criminal records are monolithic and also to undermine the true reason why formerly incarcerated individuals should have their right to vote restored.
To best address this opposition to restoring voting rights to citizens who have completed their sentences, we can look towards Florida where, in 2018, Amendment 4 was proposed. This amendment would restore a person’s right to vote after they complete their sentence, with exceptions for those convicted of murder and felony sex offenses. The proposal of this amendment led some to speculate that its success would dramatically benefit Democrats through the state. In reality, formerly incarcerated individuals vote at relatively low rates due to various obstacles they face upon returning to society, and when they do vote, there is no notable partisan swing. Ultimately, the idea of reinstating voting rights to returning citizens is not about swinging elections but rather the restoration of more democratic practices.
Florida’s Amendment 4 also highlights the justice system’s continuation of forcing formerly incarcerated individuals into helpless positions. Even after Floridians voted overwhelmingly for the amendment, many returning citizens who could register to vote have not tried, in part because they feel the obstacles are still too great to overcome. Indeed, after Amendment 4 was approved, Republican state lawmakers passed a law requiring formerly incarcerated individuals to repay any outstanding court fines and fees before having their rights restored. At least 75 percent of the roughly one million returning citizens in Florida owe court debts, and most cannot repay them. Even worse, the state of Florida has no uniform system that records court debt, so even if someone knows exactly how much they owe, they must go through the strenuous process of figuring out which private collection agency has been assigned their debt.
Organizations such as the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition have raised money to donate to returning citizens seeking their right to vote, and while this has certainly helped on an individual basis, it exhibits the greater necessity for structural change. The coalition has raised over $20 million, yes, but this figure is largely composed of contributions from celebrities and big names like Michael Bloomberg, Ariana Grande, and LeBron James, to name a few. The moment we start relying on the generosity of millionaires to restore voting rights, we should reexamine our country’s enfranchisement policies.
At the end of the day, disenfranchisement is just one of the myriad flawed facets within our country’s criminal justice system. But this is not to say that we should accept these conditions. In the past four years, several states have removed some barriers to voting, with governors of other states restoring voting rights for individuals through blanket executive orders. This gradual process goes to show that legislation like Florida’s Amendment 4 could prove fruitful as long as we acknowledge that the restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals is about establishing just, democratic practices—not a tactic to benefit one party or the other.
The Sentence Project’s 2020 estimate of 5.2 million Americans disenfranchised due to felony convictions is actually an improvement from 2016, when the number was 6.1 million. These numbers reveal the very real, dehumanizing impacts of disenfranchisement that emphasize the need for reform on the systemic level. There is nothing moral about a system that overwhelmingly targets people of color under the guise of executing “justice” and, after doing so, revokes some of their most fundamental rights. This disparity in the criminal justice system is linked to disparity in political representation, which further perpetuates the cycle of oppression. In order to provide equitable representation, we must address the demons of disenfranchisement and the harshly punitive justice system that our country harbors. Then, and only then, will we get closer to establishing a fair country for all individuals.
Note: This article does not use the term “ex-felon,” “ex-convict,” “inmate,” or “prisoner” in an effort to break down the dangerous dichotomy of “us versus them” when discussing (formerly) incarcerated individuals.