We Need a Healthy Conversation About Allowing Prisoners to Vote.

What voting rights could mean for the imprisoned population.

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Photo via Larry Farr on Unsplash

The discussion surrounding prisons and how to tackle criminal justice reform overall has been an important and necessary part of political debate, and has come to the heart of the conversation in recent days. During a recent CNN town hall, Bernie Sanders raised eyebrows with his bold and controversial position that yes, he would allow the Boston bomber to vote. Predictably, this statement ignited fierce pushback to the idea. In the sensationalized response to Bernie’s answer, the larger point and what he was trying to address might unfortunately be getting lost in the discourse.

By stating that he would allow the Boston bomber to vote, Bernie was telling the audience that yes, he stood by his principled view that he would allow ALL prisoners and ex prisoners to vote, regardless of their crimes.

By conflating all of the country’s incarcerated population with the likes of the Boston bomber, we are doing an enormous disservice to the discussion by allowing people to forget the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of people behind bars for crimes like drug offenses. There are people doing life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent drug offenses. Obviously, the overwhelming majority of prisoners are not terrorists, and a majority of them aren’t even murderers. We are allowing people to forget the fact that even AFTER criminals have paid their debt to society, felons face incredible systemic obstacles that stand in the way of them improving their lives.

Why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote?

They are paying their debt to society, and have already forfeited the right to live among the population. What good does it do to take away their right to participate in our democracy? Would anyone who is intent on committing a crime of any kind really be deterred by the fact that they won’t be able to vote if they go through with it? As for the vast majority of prisoners who have the possibility of being released one day, how is barring them from voting going to help them improve their circumstances and lessen their chances of recidivism?

And we absolutely cannot forget the population in our county jails, who haven’t even been convicted or crimes but are sitting in cells for months or even years at a time without being able to vote. Should they really be forced to forfeit that right?

Hardline conservatives like my Dad took Bernie’s answer and ran with it, saying he couldn’t imagine if someone who potentially murdered a family member would be able to vote in prison. Frankly, the notion of someone who murdered my family member being able to vote would be the very least of my concerns. My worries would be about their release date, what measures if any they are taking to better their lives, and how they are interacting with their fellow inmate population. I would not be worried about who they voted for.

Perhaps, if prisoners and ex felons are allowed to vote, they might be more interested in what’s going on in their community, and how they can bring about change in some small way. Not every person behind bars is a hardened criminal with no chance of becoming a productive member of society, and allowing them to vote would allow them to select a candidate who they feel might give them and their communities the best chance of succeeding.

All that being said, I understand why the thought of a criminal being allowed to vote might be difficult for some to understand and support. Of course I understand why someone might not want a person convicted of a serious violent crime being able to vote for city council members, district attorneys, or school board members. It’s a topic that deserves long and healthy debate, and there are valid reasons for being against it. But the fact is that while criminals of course do give up certain freedoms, they should not be forced to give up every single aspect of what it means to be a citizen in this country.

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Lauren is a writer & leftist with analysis on topics related to politics & policy. She can be reached at LaurenMartinchek@gmail.com or Twitter @xlauren_mx

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