The incarcerated deserve the right to vote. In all fifty states, voting rights are either outlawed or severely restricted for incarcerated individuals. Incarcerated populations, who make up over 2 million Americans, are – by the government’s design – disproportionately people of color and people from low-income communities. The federal disenfranchisement of the incarcerated represents a systematic effort to remove the voting rights of millions of citizens in the United States who deserve institutional power in the total institutions they’re imprisoned in.
What is even more cruel about the current system of disenfranchisement is that prisoners count towards the number of representatives that electoral districts get in the House of Representatives even if they don’t have the right to vote in those districts. Since prisons are constructed away from urban centers, the communities that gain from this system are the same sorts of electoral constituencies that red-stamp the continued criminalization of blackness, color, or anything remotely ‘foreign.’
The systematic discrimination often occurs after a citizen has finished their sentence in prison, as well. Formerly incarcerated individuals are excluded from jobs, social services like welfare, and are denied general admittance into the society that they were exiled from. Everywhere a prisoner goes, they are unable to escape the total institution.
These systems of mass incarceration and mass disenfranchisement were not made exclusively by Republicans. Mass incarceration for most of the last fifty years has been a bipartisan effort. Joe Biden, who passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, said as Senator that Bill Clinton was being too lax on “violent thugs” and “predators on our streets.” The narrative and talking points of being “tough on crime” are deeply connected to the histories of structural racism in this country; Mr. Joe Biden should know, as he gave the eulogy at Strom Thurmond’s funeral.
The most common rebuttal against expanding the voting franchise to the incarcerated is that they have chosen to relinquish their ties to society by committing society’s most heinous crimes. In a world where every decision was fair and every choice was truly and fully in the hands of the individual, I might agree. However, we don’t live in that kind of society. We live in a late, racialized capitalism. To ignore the extreme number of people, and especially the disproportionate amount of black people in prison, is to reject the social causes of the crimes we chose to prosecute the incarcerated for. These causes go back to the criminalization of blackness that the U.S. federal government has incorporated into a system resembling a new Jim Crow.
The people currently behind bars, sometimes for the rest of their lives, should be able to have the ability to assess the social roots of their own criminality. If prisoners do garner enough votes to substantially change U.S. politics, it won’t be of their own accord. It will be because we have made the conscious decision to enforce the colonizing mentality of crime without conscience of the reasons why that crime exists in the first place. The real reason why so many people are behind bars is because of the interlocking systems of racism and “tough on crime” culture, full stop. It’s time to re-enfranchise all of our country’s citizens.