When millions of Americans cast their votes for tumultuous 2016 presidential election, six million Americans held their breath because they had no say in the matter. Those six million are felons, criminals carrying out their court-mandated prison sentences which include "civil death," the loss of voting rights. The condition of civil death has been used against criminals since ancient Greece and was brought over to America by the English colonists, but in modern times with modern ethics, such a practice raises several questions.
Namely, should felons be allowed to have a say in who becomes the president of our nation, or have they forfeited that right entirely?
And considering that felons' votes could largely impact swing states, there is certainly room for discussion. In Florida, for instance, "more than 10 percent of the voting-age population is disenfranchised," and felons' voting rights are restored only "through a governor’s executive action or a court order. Similar rules apply in Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia," according to KQED News.
Presently, only Maine and Vermont grant felons the right to vote, even when they are incarcerated, whereas 38 other states (including the District of Columbia) give felons the right to vote only after the completion of their sentence. Some other states require the full completion of the prison sentence, including parole and probation — which can continue for one's entire life.
As it so happens, the states with the most restrictive felon disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect African Americans — especially black men, with one out 13 rendered unable to vote. That's more than 7 percent nationally, as reported by the Sentencing Project. Maine and Vermont, on the other hand, (the only two states that allow felons to vote while imprisoned), are "both overwhelmingly white," notes KQED News.
Also interestingly enough, according to Edison Research for the National Election Pool's exit poll, those same "white non-Hispanic voters preferred Trump over Clinton by 21 percentage points (58 percent to 37 percent),"
The New York Times reported that a majority of the states where whites voted for Trump are "states where non-college whites outnumber college-educated whites the most: Iowa (by 30 percent), Wisconsin (by 25 percent), Ohio (by 24 percent) and Nevada (by 18 percent)." That maybe a large part of the reason why swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa succumbed to the Trump majority.
If felons were permitted to vote, would the swing states have chosen differently?
Some say yes because a disproportionate number of African Americans are jailed in several states across the U.S., particularly those in the South which also happens to have the strictest set of felon disenfranchisement laws.
However, others ask, does it even matter? After all, criminals have landed themselves in jail for a reason, and while for some it may have been due to difficult circumstances and an unfortunate series of events, it's still worth noting that they have violated the law.
But because of the current law, 46 percent of prisoners are being jailed for drug offenses, most of which we can safely assume may be marijuana charges. Out of the total population of convicts across America, 4.1 percent of prisoners are later found to be innocent. This means 1 in 25 adults is falsely imprisoned, and "in a country with millions of criminal convictions a year and more than 2 million people behind bars, even 1 percent amounts to tens of thousands of tragic errors," according to The Washington Post.
Society's harsh view of convicts and ex-convicts has often skewed our treatment of them.
As we've progressed into modern times, the law has been adjusted to our shifting moral compass which has resulted in many changes, such as granting women the right to vote and legalizing alcohol. These two changes in particular affected a majority of the population and thus, were backed strongly and consistently till the government complied. Felons, on the other hand, are locked behind bars with little to no interaction with the rest of society. They not only suffer a "civil death" for their crimes but also face exclusion from normality due to their isolation in prison society which follows the uncivil "code of the street."
Because of the danger associated with mixing criminals and civilians, as well as the fact that our prison system is already pretty messed up, it's all too easy to understand why it's easier for us to just restrict convicts' and ex-convicts' rights when it comes to having a say in political matters.
What we have yet to understand, however, is that the prison system does not become an entity separate from the existence of our nation. The prison system and its prisoners are very much a part of America, and they have understood the horrors of the prison system firsthand, which gives them not only more experience but the right to speak out about change in the system. And perhaps it should also give them the right to cast a vote for a leader who will change the degenerated American prison systems.
But it doesn't seem like that'll be happening anytime soon, considering that, in response to the governor of Virgina signing an executive order that restored the voting rights of over 200,000 ex-felons, Think Progress reports that president-elect Donald Trump said:
“That’s crooked politics...They’re giving 200,000 people that have been convicted of heinous crimes, horrible crimes, the worst crimes, the right to vote because, you know what? They know they’re gonna vote Democrat. They’re gonna vote Democrat and that could be the swing. That’s how disgusting and dishonest our political system is.”