ARTICLE BY OLIVIA BLOM
With just a few days until Election Day 2016, all eyes seem to be on American voters. It’s nearly impossible to watch to a news story or hear a candidate speak without some mention of the people who will be showing up at polling stations on November 8th. We speculate over the perspectives of undecided voters, discuss means of increasing voter turnout, and attempt to envision just how enthusiastic voters will be about casting their ballots. What we seem to talk about less, however, is who exactly these voters are–or perhaps more accurately, who they are not. Most states have laws of some sort prohibiting individuals convicted of felonies from voting. While there might seem to be some reasonable arguments for keeping those in prison from voting, different states have very different regulations that make felony disenfranchisement inconsistent and unfairly applied. A choice as significant as the 2016 presidential race prompts further examination of whether this system is actually the United States’ best option.
According to The Sentencing Project, 6.1 million Americans are unable to vote due to laws regulating voting rights of individuals convicted of felonies. These laws range from limits only while a person is in prison to more extensive rules that prevent voting during parole, probation, and even after the sentence has been completed. In Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky, for example, an individual with a felony conviction is disenfranchised permanently unless the government specifically restores his or her rights. Maine and Vermont, on the other hand, have no restrictions on the votes of convicted felons–even those currently serving terms in prison can cast ballots.
This inconsistency in policy does not, however, end at comparing one state to another. Even within an individual state, there can be discrepancies in how regulations are interpreted and which people are unable to vote. Alabama, one of those most restrictive states in terms of felon disenfranchisement, uses language in its statute barring those convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude” from voting. The law offers no specific list, however, of the crimes falling into that category. Left with obvious ambiguity in the regulation, Alabama officials often reach different conclusions for people convicted of the same crime. The distinction between those who get to vote and those who don’t is sometimes merely the worker at the registrar’s office who reviewed their application. These officers are not usually legal professionals, yet their individual decisions can determine whether a person is allowed to cast a ballot at all.
If the vague nature of these regulations is not enough to call them into question, their demographic implications certainly are. Under the Alabama law, approximately fifteen percent of the state’s black voting age population is disenfranchised. That staggering statistic is not an unexpected anomaly, but rather points to the racist history of felon disenfranchisement laws. Alabama’s state constitution barred those committing even misdemeanors of “moral turpitude” from voting until the 1980s. The president of the 1901 constitutional convention publicly asserted that the language intended “to establish white supremacy in this state.” In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court found that this rule had been established to keep blacks from voting and was unconstitutional. In response, Alabama lawmakers rephrased the state constitution to refer only to felonies of “moral turpitude.” This problematic language is still the law of the land today.
When discussing felon disenfranchisement, some may be tempted to dismiss convicted felons as undeserving of the right to vote. These individuals have in many cases violated the terms of a deeply ingrained social contract, and many Americans understandably feel that they should be punished severely. These crimes, however, do not exempt their perpetrators from the choices of lawmakers. In fact, convicted felons may find their lives impacted even more by government policies than most of the rest of the American population. While restrictions on voting during periods of imprisonment, probation, and parole can and should be debated, I think lifetime disenfranchisement is dangerously extreme. To strip an individual of his or her ability to vote is to take a fundamental aspect of participation in United States government. Prohibiting individuals from voting minimizes both their tangible influence in the American political system and the perceived legitimacy of their perspectives. Voting is a fundamental part of American political system, so we must consider potential policies of disenfranchisement cautiously and intentionally.
Because felon disenfranchisement is such an impactful area of policy, it is especially troubling to consider the racially based or arbitrary application of regulations like those in Alabama. In order to more adequately address the topic of voting rights for individuals convicted of felonies, the United States must work to have more consistent laws and clearer expectations of application. Alabama, for example, a bipartisan group of legislators tried to pass a law clarifying crimes falling into the category of “moral turpitude,” but the bill died before the end of the session. These efforts are an important first step, but policymakers must act with much more urgency in order to address harmful inconsistencies in these regulations. Individuals convicted of felonies are often unpredictably being deprived of their ability to vote, and each passing election is a missed opportunity to clarify who may participate. That goal should be of the utmost priority to a nation that values government for the people.