Five million Americans will be ineligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election because of felony disenfranchisement.
As November approaches, and we come closer to the presidential election, the common theme online, on our televisions, and in our day-to-day conversation centers on one topic: voting. Who will we vote for? Why will we vote for them? And how will our vote impact our nation?
It is impossible to ignore the impending presidential election. Voting is such a revered civic duty that we Americans often talk about it as a right, and yet it is still very much treated as a privilege. A privilege that can be taken away.
This November, about 5 million Americans will still be ineligible to vote. Why?
Because of previous felony convictions.
WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO VOTE?
The Founding Fathers of the United States originally determined that only citizens who owned property (and therefore paid taxes) could vote, and the ability to vote could be taken away after a felony conviction. It was in the Jim Crow era that disenfranchisement laws were expanded broadly, designed to include other crimes that were most commonly committed by African Americans. As a result, felony disenfranchisement still bears a legacy of discrimination on the basis of wealth and race in America.
If we deny someone the right to vote, we force them to not only plead their case to legally cast a ballot but to be acknowledged as citizens and Americans. Although many states have since passed laws and even constitutional amendments to rectify these sins, the national struggle for 243 years has been arduous and often ugly.
LINGERING CONSEQUENCES: FELONY DISENFRANCHISEMENT
Prison Fellowship® founder Charles Colson was counsel to President Richard M. Nixon. His role in the Watergate Scandal resulted in his conviction and incarceration, as well as hefty collateral consequences for the rest of his life. "One of the lingering consequences of my father's conviction was losing his right to vote," wrote Emily Colson in 2018. "Losing his voting rights stung." The denial of Colson's voting rights imposed on him a sort of second class citizenship–something experienced right now by millions of our family members, church members, and neighbors in America.
Colson's right to vote was eventually restored by then Gov. Jeb Bush in 2000, and he spent the rest of his life advocating for other formerly incarcerated people to have the same restoration. Prison Fellowship has continued this work, and since 2009, has seen at least 15 states and the District of Columbia have taken action to restore voting rights to those with felony convictions, or to revise the restoration process. However, for many returning citizens, that is still not an option.
Eleven states restrict voting for some or all of those who have completed their sentence for a felony conviction. Thirty-seven states temporarily suspend the right to vote for those convicted of a felony crime either during incarceration or during both incarceration and community supervision. Some states automatically restore voting rights upon release or upon sentence completion, while in other states the restoration process can be long, grueling, and expensive. Just three jurisdictions—Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia—allow all citizens to vote, whether they're behind bars or not.
JUSTICE AND RESTORATION
At Prison Fellowship, we believe that the right to vote is a person's primary right of citizenship, and that fostering healthy community engagement is a vital part of offering people a meaningful second chance. We also believe that accepting racial discrimination in any form, including in the context of voting rights, betrays the teachings of the Gospel and that we as Christians have a unique calling to racial reconciliation.
Depriving a person of their vote as a punishment for crime is not proportional, and restrictions on exercising the right to vote should be limited to a person’s term of incarceration–and then, only after conviction and sentencing. In states where incarcerated men and women are able to vote, that right should be exercised free of interference and coercion.
In the swirl of political and partisan rhetoric about voting this election season, we ought to remember Colson's words in 2012:
Voting doesn't pose a threat to public safety. Sound criminal justice policy has always held that the goal of punishment and rehabilitation is to turn ex-offenders into responsible citizens. And once they show that they can be responsible, there can be no justification—besides scoring political points—for refusing to restore their civil rights.
WE BELIEVE IN SECOND CHANCES
At Prison Fellowship, we believe in second chances. We are a leading national voice shaping the public debate on justice. We draw on our frontline experience as we mobilize Christians and equip policymakers to call for federal and state justice reforms that advance proportional punishment, constructive corrections culture, and second chances. By engaging churches and communities in a more restorative approach to justice, Prison Fellowship envisions a safer, more redemptive society that validates victims and transforms those responsible for crime.
For returning citizens, felony disenfranchisement denies them their voice and degrades them to second-class citizens. Because of this, Prison Fellowship continues to advocate for justice that restores. We have testified and supported advocacy campaigns to restore voting rights in a variety of states, including Florida's Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to approximately 1.5 million people in 2018. We actively support bills to end felony disenfranchisement and provide avenues for men and women to engage as constructive, contributing members of their civic community. Part of this work includes working to ensure that the ability to pay court-imposed fines and fees don't stand in the way of restoring voting rights.
"My father served his prison sentence with the love of his family and the commitment of supportive friends," shares Emily Colson. "Others are not as fortunate. … The lack of access to second-chance opportunities is an important factor in recidivism. People who feel isolated, branded by their past and unable to overcome such obstacles ultimately may be hindered in their efforts to build a new life."
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