Right to Vote in Prison Takes a Monumental Step

Right to Vote in Prison Takes a Monumental Step

Voting is perhaps the most necessary thing for any nation that purports to have democratic ideals. The right to free speech, the right to a fair trial and countless other rights are undoubtedly crucial. But voting — the ability to have a say in who makes the decisions that impact your everyday life — might be even more important. The ability to have that say in decision makers may not be any more apparent than it is in prisons. Yet prisoners across the country don’t have that say. Many people may question whether that’s morally right, but few are willing to do something to change it. Those few include U.S. Representatives Cori Bush (D-MO) and Mondaire Jones (D-NY). The two lawmakers forced a monumental vote on proposed legislation that included the right to vote in prison.

Many States Don’t Let Inmates Vote — Even After Their Release

Most of us take voting for granted (although the politically contentious nature of the world tonight might be changing that). Some of you reading this may vote every two or four years. You might vote for candidates simply because of their political party. In fact, you may not even pay close enough attention to know who is to blame for the problems that motivate you to vote in the first place. But if there’s something you don’t like about your life — the amount of taxes you pay, your struggles with a minimum-wage lifestyle, your kids’ school, and so on — you have the chance to change it at the polls.

Some countries do give citizens the right to vote from prison.
Image courtesy of Owen Yancher, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most prisoners don’t. That’s especially true when they’re in prison, but, in many states, it’s true after they’re released as well. As a result, this means that they have no say in significant parts of their everyday lives. But, with mortality rates on the rise in prisons across the country, having this say is crucial. If you don’t have a loved one in prison, it might be easy to shrug this off as the consequences of crime. But, for the 113-plus Americans with a loved one in prison, simply writing off the wellbeing of prisoners isn’t an option.

Yet only Maine, Vermont and Washington D.C. currently allow anyone with a felony conviction to vote from prison. Other states are considering similar proposals as well. But the U.S.’s efforts in this regard fall far short of efforts around the world. Countries like Canada and Israel, for example, allow incarcerated people to vote in their elections already.

The House Passed a Package of Voting-Rights Proposals on Wednesday

On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, the “For the People Act.” The legislation includes a variety of anti-corruption and voting-rights measures. These are policicies that the Democratic Party has pursued for years. The measures include the creation of a national system for automatic voter registration, certain transparency requirements for political advertising and even redistricting commissions designed to end gerrymandering.

Despite having the majority in the House and the Senate, putting this at the top of their political wishlist and including proposals that are generally popular with the public, the Democratic Party still faces an uphill battle with the legislation. Because of the Senate’s filibuster rules, Democratic lawmakers need 60 votes — a number that includes 10 Republicans, and a number they’re unlikely to get.

Regardless of H.R. 1’s fate in the Senate, though, the proposed legislation made history for what didn’t make it into the text of the bill, too.

Rep. Bush and Rep. Jones’ Amendment to Restore the Right to Vote in Prison

Rep. Cori Bush introduced a bill that would give people in prison the right to vote.
U.S. Representative Cori Bush (D-MO)
Image courtesy of House Creative Committe via Wikimedia Commons.

While the House was considering the bill, U.S. Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) and U.S. Representative Mondaire Jones (D-NY) proposed an amendment that would have allow people convicted of a felony to vote from prison. This proposed amendment was historic not because it passed — it failed in an overwhelming 97-328 vote with just a minority of the Democratic Party and no Republican Party support — but because it was proposed in the first place.

As Jerry Iannelli of The Appeal wrote, “activists and lawmakers fighting to expand voting rights say they’re hopeful that the vote was the beginning, rather than the end, of a national debate on voting rights for prisoners.” Rep. Bush is one of those lawmakers who is not done fighting. “This fight is not over — it’s only the beginning,” she told The Appeal. “The victory was in getting those 97. Look at who those 97 are. They’re a mixture of what our caucus is made of: not just progressives, not just people who claim to be progressive, not just people who look like me.”

As Iannelli explained, Rep. Bush’s perspective is accurate. Part of the 97 votes for the amendment came from expected sources. These include lawmakers from the more progressive wing of the party like U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). But support also came from some of the establishment-leaning members, too. Examples include U.S. Representatives Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL). This party-wide support gives advocates optimism for the future.

Supporters of Felony Disenfranchisement Aren’t Going Away Any Time Soon

Despite gaining support from both ends of the Democratic Party’s political spectrum, the reality is that felony disenfranchisement remains widely supported. Both Republicans and Democrats, at least to some extent, support the idea that a felony should prevent people from having a say in who leads this country and makes decisions that impact their everyday lives.

Some critics of the right to vote and lawmakers, two groups that often overlap, even contend that no right to vote exists at all. Instead, they claim, voting is a privilege. But, as Garrett Epps wrote in The Atlantic nearly eight years ago, the U.S. Constitution literally refers to “the right to vote.”

(The notion that one could believe in textualism, meaning a belief that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its plain meaning, or originalism, meaning a belief that the Constitution should be interpreted as it would have been at the time it was drafted, while still believing that “the right to vote” isn’t actually a right to vote is perplexing at best.)

Yet lawmakers across the country seek to limit, and sometimes completely revoke, the right to vote. While some limitations are undoubtedly necessary on this right — just like some limitations are undoubtedly necessary on the right to free speech, the right to bear arms and so on — many lawmakers simply treat the right to vote differently. In prison, for example, you maintain your right to free speech and your religious freedom but with someone limitations. But your right to vote? You almost always don’t.

The Fight to Give People the Right to Vote in Prison Isn’t Over

Rep. Bush and Rep. Jones didn’t change that with the since-rejected amendment that would have preserved the right to vote in prison. But 97 lawmakers are now on record supporting this latest attempt to ensure access to justice for all. And that’s a number that can grow with hard work from advocates and lawmakers who are committed to meaningful justice reform.

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