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April 12, 2019

"There Is No Good Reason Prisoners Can’t Vote"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times commentary authored by Jamelle Bouie.  Here are excerpts:

Americans may see it as common sense that you lose your right to vote when you’re imprisoned, but in many democracies prisoners retain the right to vote.  When that right is revoked, it’s only for particular crimes (in Germany, it’s for “targeting” the “democratic order”), and often there is a good deal of judicial discretion.  Mandatory disenfranchisement is unusual, and permanent disenfranchisement is even rarer....

As it stands, incarcerated people retain a variety of rights, some of which touch on the political rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  Prisoners have freedom of worship. They can protest mistreatment and poor conditions.  They can exercise some free speech rights, like writing for newspapers, magazines and other publications.  To that point, there is a rich literature of work by incarcerated people tackling complex social and political issues.  Voting would be a natural extension of these activities.

An obvious objection is that criminal transgressions render prisoners unfit for participation in democratic society.  But there’s nothing about committing a crime, even a serious one, that renders someone incapable of making a considered political choice.  Losing your liberty doesn’t mean you’ve lost your capacity to reason.  Prisoners are neither more nor less rational than anyone else who is allowed to vote.

If anything, the political system needs the perspectives of prisoners, with their intimate experience of this otherwise opaque part of the state.  Their votes might force lawmakers to take a closer look at what happens in these institutions before they spiral into unaccountable violence and abuse.

There are practical benefits as well.  Racial disparities in criminal enforcement and sentencing means disenfranchisement falls heaviest on black communities.  This is not just a direct blow to prisoners’ electoral power; it also ripples outward, depressing political participation among their friends, families and acquaintances.  On the other end, suffrage in prison may help incarcerated people maintain valuable links to their communities, which might smooth the transition process once they’re released.

“Citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the majority in Trop v. Dulles, a 1958 case dealing with the rights of a military deserter.  And, he continued, “citizenship is not lost every time a duty of citizenship is shirked.”  Yes, prisoners have committed crimes, and yes, some of those are egregious. But depriving any citizen of the right to vote should be the grave exception, not a routine part of national life.  Universal suffrage means universal suffrage.

April 12, 2019 at 08:23 AM | Permalink


I would presume that the votes could be manipulated in a prison environment but once a prison inmate has served their time and is released in society then absolutely they should be able to vote.

Posted by: LC in Texas | Apr 13, 2019 7:36:07 PM

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