The conversation surrounding the enfranchisement of former and current prisoners is taking shape in town halls, courts and the ballot box itself.
The issue re-emerged on the national scale in the 2018 midterms where Florida voters decided in a super-majority that former felons ought to be re-enfranchised. Since this development, Democratic candidates bidding for White House in 2020 have given voice to the issue, coming from different perspectives: Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg embracing the enfranchisement of former felons and Sen. Bernie Sanders suggesting even current felons should retain their right to vote.
Candidates should support full enfranchisement of former felons with the end goal of ensuring the right to vote for all felons. This conversation is a must-have this election cycle and in the future.
The formerly incarcerated should be re-enfranchised to follow the trend of states expanding their electorate to include former felons. A common opinion by voters supportive of this trend hinges on platitudes like “they’ve done their time” and awareness of issues, like racial profiling, rampant in our current system.
As Sen. Warren puts it, “Once someone pays their debt to society, they’re out there expected to pay taxes, expected to abide by the law, they’re expected to support themselves and their families. I think that means they’ve got a right to vote.”
If their rights are restored following their sentence, it is only common sense that the fundamental right to vote is part of their return to civic life.
Sanders’ expansive view on the issue is unrealistic for this cycle due to reasons of political pragmatism and the great possibility of attacks from the right on this issue. Otherwise, extending the right to vote to felons across the nation may be on the horizon in the coming years.
Incrementalism has merits in this issue, given that Democrats and voters continue making headway on enfranchisement to former felons. It puts them in a better position to extend voting rights to current felons while allowing this new voting bloc of former felons to bargain for that extension.
Why is enfranchisement of all former felons a necessary step in the right direction?
Felons, especially of nonviolent crimes, should not meet a “civic death.” In truth, they should be imprisoned with a focus on rehabilitation, not demoralization. Shifting the focus to rehabilitative measures and extending the rights of the formerly incarcerated can make a meaningful difference by providing better means for readjustment to society.
Prevention of crime is the best way to reduce its cost. This may also mean making other meaningful changes in areas like housing, food security and employment -- insecurities in these areas are primary contributors to felonious crime. The burden of these crimes fall on taxpayers by keeping vulnerable populations, often of minority status, continually imprisoned.
A platform should be given to the formerly incarcerated, promoting democracy by expanding the voting population and giving them a voice to improve upon their circumstances. While in prison, they retain various first amendment protections and should be allowed to utilize them in the ballot box.
The right to vote should be valued to the same extent as those protections -- but the Supreme Court does not equate the right to vote with the right to free speech. The extension of the right to vote to felons would be a considerably less controversial issue if they were synonymous.
A nationwide assurance that former felons are re-enfranchised is a necessary and practical step to improving our criminal justice system. Our focus for imprisonment should be rehabilitation rather than punishment to ensure the betterment of society as a whole. Extending a fundamental right such as voting to former felons to meet that end is a no-brainer.