Reconciling Democracy and Incarceration
The United States tends to exhibit a great nationalistic pride in its democracy. And so generally, we assume that any U.S. citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. Yet this right can be taken away permanently if one is convicted of a felony, the most common of which being drug-related. Ironically, the United States, proudly deemed the “Land of the Free,” has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yet it still may be shocking to consider that “[a]pproximately 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population—1 of every 40 adults—is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.”
Jerry Shaw, a writer for NewsMax, argues that ex-felons should not have the right to vote because they have “demonstrated dishonesty and irresponsibility in their character by committing a crime.” Shaw also claims, “[c]hildren, non-citizens and the mentally handicapped can’t vote because of standards of trustworthiness and responsibility.” He suggests that people who committed felonies have demonstrated that they do not have the capacity to make good decisions. “Felon,” “criminal,” and “prisoner” are all particularly incriminating terms that make it easy to dismiss a person as “bad” or “dangerous.” However, we need to take a look at who is really filling our prisons.
The Prison Policy Initiative reports that although black people are only 13% of the total population, they make up 40% of incarcerated people. Some people conclude that there are just more people of color committing criminal behavior than white people. In an article for the Huffington Post, Kim Farbota claims that people justify this “common conservative narrative” by claiming “that black people have a natural criminal propensity, or that a ‘culture of violence’ is to blame for problems faced by black people in America.” However, the NAACP reported that five times as many whites reported using illicit drugs compared to African Americans, but African Americans are imprisoned due to drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. If we consider Shaw’s argument that ex-prisoners do not deserve the right to vote because of their untrustworthiness, poor judgment, and dishonesty, then a far greater proportion of our population deserves to be disenfranchised than just the ones behind bars.
Though restoring ex-prisoner’s voting rights would have a major effect in a national election, historically it has had that potential. As Zachary Dowdy noted in The New Crisis Magazine, the 400,000 disenfranchised former prisoners during the 2000 election could have certainly altered the outcome that was determined by a mere couple hundred votes. The 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore came down to less than 1,000 —perhaps as little as a couple hundred—votes in Florida. The results of the election took five weeks to determine due to voting issues, such as “confusing ballots, missing names from voting rolls, and subjecting minority voters to multiple requests for identification.” The Supreme Court ruled against a recount, and Bush defeated Gore by a narrow margin of 537 votes. The uncounted votes could be dismissed as simply caused by poor planning and administrative errors, yet notable patterns emerged while assessing the demographics of those who cast the unrecorded votes.
The investigative report that looked into Florida’s voting irregularities in the 2000 presidential election discovered that “African American voters were nearly 10 times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected.” Though only 11% of the Floridian voters were African American, they “cast about 54 percent of the 180,000 spoiled ballots.” Across Florida, there were multiple cases of poll workers denying African Americans the right to vote based on false felony convictions. Navy veteran, Willie Steen, described his rejection at the polls as a humiliating ordeal: he held up the growing line in an attempt to defend himself while his “name was dragged through the mud.”
Since disenfranchisement is based on felony conviction, corruption in the criminal justice system has the power to affect voter representation. According to the Sentencing Project, an organization that analyzes fairness in the criminal justice system, 1 in every 13 black adults nationally cannot vote due to a felony conviction with disenfranchisement rates being even higher in certain states: 1 in every 5 black adults in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Even if the offense does not amount to a felony, African Americans’ sentences are usually longer than those of whites: the NAACP noted that “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).” Since incarcerated people cannot vote, longer sentences inhibit more voting opportunities.
Yet even though prisoners are unable to vote, their bodies are still “counted.” Since many states require their inmates to list the prison as their home address, the prisoners are included in the district’s population. The Prison Gerrymandering Project used the city of Anamosa, Iowa, as an example of this political phenomena. Anamosa, a small town of 5,000, had a large prison that practically constituted as a whole city council district—1,300 of the 1,400 people in the district were incarcerated—based on how the district lines were drawn.
Prisoners do not have the right to vote, and so “basing districts on non-voting non-resident prison populations gives a handful of residents the same political power as thousands of residents elsewhere in the city.” Because prison-based gerrymandering aggrandizes the votes of residents in districts with prisons, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund considered this practice to be “a mockery of the principle of ‘one person, one vote.’”
Since prisons are usually in small, rural, conservative towns, Alex Mayyasi, writer for Priceconomics, argued that “[t]he result is that black prisoners from urban areas boost the voting power of rural, white districts.” There is still the repurposing of black bodies today, painfully reminiscent of the ultimate and most blatant act of repurposing: the Three-Fifths Compromise. Enacted in 1787, this law mandated that “the population of slaves would be counted as three-fifths in total when apportioning Representatives, as well as Presidential electors and taxes.” Not only are prisoners losing many of their rights while incarcerated, but worse yet they are being used as political pawns to inflate other people’s votes.
We have to reflect on who is filling our prisons, where we are putting them, and why. Whose voices and votes are we founded on and defending? There is no such thing as selective democracy. As Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in a letter that he wrote while incarcerated in Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”