The fight for fair and equitable elections is front and center in the country’s political debate right now. States are rightly being held accountable for systems that have not been accessible for far too many eligible voters. But few leaders are talking about a group of people who are routinely denied the right to vote in almost every state: former felons.
The good news is that outlook has gotten better over the last several decades. More states have restored voting rights for felons, albeit after a substantial period of time beyond the completion of their sentences. Only two states (Maine and Vermont) plus the District of Columbia allow felons to keep their right to vote through incarceration. In 21 states, voting rights are restored upon release, but that leaves 27 states still punishing people long after they’ve served their sentence.
In 16 of those states, voting rights are automatically restored after a set time. But that process is often deceiving, as many states require the payment of outstanding fees and fines before re-establishing voting rights.
Yes, even after serving their sentence, many former felons are still on the hook for the cost of the trial that put them there in the first place. With limited job opportunities, it’s close to impossible to ever pay off this debt.
In 11 states, felons for some crimes lose their voting rights indefinitely.
Lack of Voting Rights Keeps People Marginalized
Not allowing formerly incarcerated people to vote is another way that our country marginalizes these populations, who tend to be overwhelmingly African American and people of color. It is one of the more recent, subtly powerful examples of racial segregation in our country, as author Michelle Alexander has described in her best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
All of this, of course, is both unjust and undemocratic. We are a society of laws predicated on the idea that we hold people accountable for their actions, and, once they’ve paid their dues to society, it is our responsibility to allow them back into the fold.
When you dig into the numbers, they’re staggering: 5.2 million Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction. This includes 1 in 16 African Americans (compared to 1 in 59 non-black voters), according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that promotes effective responses to crime that “minimize imprisonment and criminalization.”
One of the problems is that we don’t see these formerly incarcerated prisoners as people like you and me. It’s “us” and “them,” which is why it’s so important to break down those barriers.
Moving Beyond Us vs. Them
That was one of my main goals in creating Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership, an educational program I developed more than a decade ago in which university students meet weekly with committed youth at a maximum-security juvenile correctional center to explore questions of meaning, value, and social justice through life-changing conversations about Russian literature classics.
We have learned that by discussing personally relevant topics and intimate stories — ranging from family to death, and success to moral responsibility — both sides gain powerful connections and challenge whatever stereotypes about the other group they may have held before entering the class. Correctional center students and university students come away transformed by this unique educational experience — moved by their discovery of the relevance of classical literature, inspired by the humanity in one another, and empowered to pursue lives of greater purpose and meaning.
These classes may be a small step, but they’ve worked wonders in providing new perspectives about how our society routinely isolates and ignores people struggling to find their place in this country.
Until everyone has the right to vote, regardless of their history, we will continue to dehumanize an entire population and not realize our promise as a democratic society founded on the ideals of equity and social justice. Let’s not forget this in any debate over voting rights.
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