It’s time to unlock the vote in America

In the 2022 midterms, millions of Americans were unable to vote. They were left without a voice, without a voice in who represents them and in the policies that govern their lives.

New research from The Sentencing Project revealed that 4.6 million Americans were unable to vote because they had a current or previous felony conviction. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated voters found themselves unable to vote from behind the wall, even though they had the right to vote.

This is unacceptable in a modern democracy. Here in Connecticut and nationally, we must take action to right these wrongs and make our democracy stronger and our society fairer.

First, we must ensure that all eligible people who are currently incarcerated have access to the ballot. Today, the vast majority of incarcerated people still have the right to vote. This is often because they are incarcerated before trial or have only been convicted of a minor crime. Despite their eligibility, these people are often unable to vote in practice due to misinformation, deprioritization among government officials, and an institutional bureaucracy that makes voting nearly impossible.

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It is up to our society to ensure that all eligible voters, including those who are incarcerated, can vote. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it benefits our society. When we encourage incarcerated people to vote, they often begin to feel a sense of responsibility and connection to their community, as well as a belief in the power of community voice within our shared democracy. Allowing people to vote in prison would also uphold the constitutional right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. These parents would have their say in school board elections and other elections that directly affect them and their families.

At the same time, we must also end the crime of disenfranchisement. These laws do not serve our society; they are a vestige of medieval times when people who broke the law were expelled from their community and had to suffer “civil death”. These laws were revived in America in the 19th century, as states adopted them to exclude black and brown Americans from voting.

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Today, these laws serve no purpose. It is not an inherent aspect of criminal punishment and does nothing to reintegrate people into their communities. No other democratic country in the world denies so many people the right to vote because of felony convictions.

We often hear critics say that if people in prison or people with felony convictions were guaranteed their right to vote, they would vote to soften criminal codes. This argument assumes that there is something innate in the criminal mind: that the person who commits a crime has always been a criminal. It ignores that there are clear racist and classist policies in America that produce poverty, low educational attainment, and lack of opportunity, all of which feed our prison state. Worse, it lets our society off the hook to keep these policies in place.

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In many cases, rather than being “soft on crime,” we see that incarcerated people are far more concerned with reforming the racist and classist systems that led to intergenerational poverty and lack of opportunity. We see them focused on reforming a fundamentally broken system, focused on unproductive punishment rather than rehabilitation.

Instead of focusing on silencing people’s voices, we must turn to breaking the cycle of mass incarceration and high recidivism rates. As long as the incarcerated remain off the ballot, our nation remains incomplete in process, incomplete in thought, and incomplete in theory.

It’s time to unlock the vote in America.

James Jeter is a co-founder of the Full Citizens Coalition.

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