Locking away voting rights from prisoners

Colleen Hammond | Opinions Editor


As the 2020 presidential election nears, many Democratic candidates have boasted their brilliant new strategies of criminal justice reform. From eliminating the cash bail system to ending federal use of private prisons, these candidates believe they have figured out how to finally fix this broken system. However, very few have taken into consideration prisoners’ opinions on these matters.

Well, why would they? The majority of prisoners in the U.S. are not allowed to vote.

As of 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported nearly 1.5 million Americans are currently incarcerated in state or federal prisons, and although laws vary state to state, most of the nation’s prisoners lose the right to vote while incarcerated — Pennsylvania prisoners included.

This means that in the upcoming election, roughly 50,000 people in Pennsylvania will not be allowed to vote because they are currently serving prison sentences.

However, although these inmates are not allowed to vote, they will still be counted in the 2020 census and contribute to the state’s overall population when determining representation in Congress.

It is deeply unjust to count prisoners as citizens when seeking representation, but revoke their right to vote once they have been counted. This tactic mimics those used in the late 1700s and through most of the 19th century in which slaves were counted (or partially counted) to boost the number of southern representatives in congress, but not granted the right to vote.

By revoking prisoners’ right to vote while counting them for representation purposes, lawmakers show their desire to disenfranchise this massive, yet unseen section of society.

The U.S. is one of the only countries to uphold this policy. Most other developed nations, including most of Europe, view voter disenfranchisement as a violation of human rights. In 2005, the European Court on Human Rights ruled that the U.K.’s blanket removal of voting rights for prisoners was inhumane. Since then, the U.K. has changed its policy and many other nations have followed suit. In 2002, the Canadian Supreme Court also upheld prisoners’ right to vote.

While many Americans view the criminal justice system as necessarily punitive, disenfranchising prisoners puts the prison population at a severe disadvantage. Even though most decisions on criminal justice policy are made by state and nationally elected officials, prisoners have no say in who represents them.

Being convicted of a felony should not disqualify someone from fair representation in state and federal government. U.S. law requires fairness in the criminal justice system when being accused of crimes and facing trial. Why does the need for fairness, justice, democracy and human dignity suddenly disappear when someone is behind bars?

If the goal of the criminal justice system is to release rehabilitated prisoners back into society, they should be allowed to have a say in the government they will face outside prison walls. Involvement in democratic processes is inherently productive and should be a permitted and encouraged activity for prisoners.

In addition, the prison industrial complex disproportionately impacts minority groups. According to the Pew Research Center, although African Americans make up only 12% of the U.S. population, they constitute 33% of the U.S. prison population. A similar trend is seen with the Hispanic population. Although Hispanics make up 16% of the national population, they comprise 23% of all inmates.

The current system disenfranchises large sections of minorities, and politicians cannot ignore this anymore.

The U.S. has consistently denied prisoners the right to vote while incarcerated. This is a clear violation of human rights. The right to vote is meant to be intrinsic and irrevocable for American citizens. This practice suppresses minorities and prevent large sections of the population from having their fair say in their governments. While prisoners may forfeit their freedom as punishment for their crimes, their inherent human dignity cannot be sacrificed for the sake of perceived “justice.”