Ballots Behind Bars
For most people, voting rights remains an issue grounded in either morality or security while for the party leaders strategically, voting right restoration or voter ID laws are almost explicitly about gaining an edge in elections, so there’s a lot of stark black and white areas or one-upmanship that makes it hard to gain a middle ground. This leads to a lot of fearmongering or proselytizing but as voting right restoration for nonviolent felons passes in ballot measure after ballot measure around the US, it’s worth it to look on what empowering someone with a vote should accomplish. With such absolute gamesmanship, it’s easy to push too far in any one direction or draw arbitrary lines in the sand, but I do believe a good point that even current felons behind bars deserve a chance to vote, on the condition that they are registered in the precinct where the jail is located, with some exceptions on the ballot line.
Now the arguments against this are sound even as Maine and Vermont already allow it and several more such as New Mexico, Connecticut and New Jersey are discussing adding this on. Opponents say that committing a crime forfeits the right to participate in government and that it is not a real punishment if violent offenders are given equal voice to law-abiding citizens, and for the most part I tend to agree on the philosophical points. There is an equalizing factor in the ballot box where it is a privilege for following the law that you get to elect who makes those laws. Supporters argue that it keeps prisoners more engaged before their release and wanting to make a positive impact when they leave. Realistically, most states considering it have new Democratic trifectas and as mostly non-violent prisoners are disproportionately African-American and likelier to be Democratic voters, this is hoping to gain an edge politically.
Instead, I’m swayed by the same point that Republican congressman Michael Burgess used when he was the sole GOP defector on a recent amendment to lower the voting age to 16 and his justification in the statement below: economic participation is a buy-in to deserving representation.
“Those who pay taxes should have a voice in our democracy. As a teenager, I worked at a pizza shop in Denton and paid taxes.”
Prisoners may not pay taxes, but they do live in full-service complexes with close ties to all levels of government, dependent on the funding and mechanisms of government at all levels. With only a network of nonprofit support groups helping them, prisoners are constantly subjected to harsh cost-cutting measures because they have no representation. I remain wary of giving the right to vote for sheriffs, elected judges, county district attorneys or possibly even governors with pardoning power because of undue influence, but prisoners’ rights as a bloc are ignored in ways that most groups this reliant on the government are not.
This is a level beyond welfare, wholly dependent with no input into any choices. It also makes sense in this case to solve a hurdle the New Mexico law hit that these prisoners should be registered in the spot of the prison. Here is where the decisions of elected officials have the direct impact they should be involved in, and it sends the statement that this is a rational extension of the rights of those who govern them rather than a moral crusade. If we continue to make those behind bars wholly reliant and a participant in decisions behind funding, privatization, and reform, then we should allow these prisoners to exercise the right to have a say in how they are overseen.