Do Ballot Boxes Belong Behind Bars?

Did mass incarceration help land Donald Trump in the White House?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In America, prisoners can’t vote. If they could, it would have an enormous effect on national and local elections. Over 42,000 people in Michigan couldn’t vote in 2016 due to incarceration or prior convictions. Donald Trump won Michigan by a mere 13,000 votes over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. We don’t know how those votes would be cast—or if they would’ve been cast at all—but having those numbers in play could have made a huge difference.

We punish people by taking away their right to participate in democracy. But what if we’re not just punishing criminals, but democracy itself?

Emmett Sanders tackled the disenfranchisement of incarcerated voters for People’s Policy Project with his paper “Full Human Beings,” published last week. In it, he argues that the incarcerated vote could improve American society.

Despite countless examples to the contrary, the United States claims to stand for two things: equality and democracy. But with prisoners, the facade is completely tossed aside. Since its earliest days, America has stripped prisoners of the most basic right provided to its citizenry. Prisoners are treated like a lower class of citizen, even after they return to free society. Convicted felons are denied voting rights and face employment difficulties regardless of their offense.

Prison reformers believe there is untapped social good from allowing prisoners to vote. Sanders talks to several prison reform workers and experts who explain that voting connects incarcerated citizens to their local community. If legislation affects their family, the right to vote on it bonds them with their family and reinvests their interest in community. That kind of social investment also promotes an individual’s self worth in a society.

Prisoner rights and racial disenfranchisement are inextricably linked. Incarceration disproportionately affects African Americans and other non-white minorities. Not allowing prisoners to vote “[mutes] representation in urban communities of color.” The interests and needs of those communities fall by the wayside due to underrepresentation.

America’s prison population has increased by 500 percent over the last 40 years. As Sanders writes, that’s also a 500 percent increase in lost voters.

Votes from prisoners and convicted felons could’ve changed past elections. Disenfranchised prison populations are usually large enough to tip the scales in close races. Sanders quotes experts who believe Al Gore would’ve easily defeated George W. Bush in 2000 if some of the 70,000 disenfranchised Floridian voters had full rights.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea of letting prisoners vote. After all, if they committed a crime in our society, they shouldn’t allowed to participate in our society, right? That makes sense until you realize it’s inhumane and opposes the equality which the United States purportedly stands for.

Currently, 26 European countries allow full or partial incarcerated voting, including the U.K., Germany and Norway. America touts itself as the greatest democracy in history, but these European nations, some of which still have royalty, are doing a better job with voting rights.

If they can treat their prisoners like citizens why can’t America?