Should Americans Be Able To Vote During and After Incarceration?

The Democratic Presidential Town Halls were held on April 22, 2019, on CNN. Throughout the evening the town halls of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VE), Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-IN) were featured. Two instances stood out to me concerning voting rights of incarcerated people; one of which was the town hall of Senator Kamala Harris (moderated by Don Lemon) and the town hall of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s (moderated by Anderson Cooper). Questions asked of the two presidential candidates were if incarcerated people should have their right to vote restored while in prison. These are their responses taken from the CNN transcript website.

COOPER: What do you think? Should people convicted of sexual assault, the Boston Marathon bomber, should they be able to vote?

BUTTIGIEG: While incarcerated?


BUTTIGIEG: No, I don’t think so. (APPLAUSE)


LEMON: Another issue that I want to talk to you about — this is really important — I’m not sure if you were watching earlier, but Senator Bernie Sanders said that he is in favor of felons being able to vote while serving in prison. He was asked specifically about people like the Boston Marathon bomber, also people who are convicted of sexual assault. And he said, this is a quote, “The right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes, even for terrible people.” Do you agree with that, Senator?

HARRIS: I agree that the right to vote is one of the very important components of citizenship and it is something that people should not be stripped of needlessly, which is why I have been long an advocate of making sure that the formerly incarcerated are not denied a right to vote, which is the case in so many states in our country, in some states permanently deprived of the right to vote. And these are policies that go back to Jim Crow. These are policies that go back to the heart of policies that have been about disenfranchisement, policies that continue until today, and we need to take it seriously.

LEMON: But people who are in — convicted, in prison, like the Boston Marathon bomber, on death row, people who are convicted of sexual assault, they should be able to vote?

HARRIS: I think we should have that conversation.

LEMON: OK. All right, thank you. We’re going to have more with Senator Kamala Harris in the special Democratic — this special CNN Democratic presidential town hall event right here after this break. Don’t go anywhere.


What is exceptionally tiring about Presidential Town Halls is that the questions asked are often very complicated questions that require very nuanced answers, but the candidates have a limited amount of time to answer them. The result is uber complicated policy issues being reduced down to bite-size for the ease of the news network and voters. Smaller answers equal better sound bites. So you have Kamala Harris not even answering the question and Pete Buttigieg not addressing the more complicated issues of unfair sentencing and prison gerrymandering. Also, the framing of questions during town halls dictates the answer the candidate gives. Look at the way Anderson Cooper framed the full query to Buttigieg:

COOPER: “…He [Bernie Sanders] was asked specifically about people like the Boston Marathon bomber, people convicted of sexual assault, rape, and other things, pedophiles. He said the right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes, even for terrible people. Senator Kamala Harris just said we should have that conversation. She didn’t really answer one way or another. What do you think? Should people convicted of sexual assault, the Boston Marathon bomber, should they be able to vote?”

Look at the language Anderson Cooper used there. He paints the picture of all incarcerated people as being bloodthirsty, mass-murdering rapists then gingerly asks, “Should they be able to vote?”. Do you know much bad press Pete Buttigieg would have received if after being asked “Do you think rapists and murderers should be able to vote while in prison?” he responded with “Sure.”? This is why the language used in a question is essential. This is why the framing of questions is important. Referring to incarcerated people only as “felons” or “prisoners” completely strips them of personhood and makes them THAT much more comfortable to dehumanize. Referring to ALL imprisoned people in America (all 2,300,000 of them, convicted and not convicted combined) by the crimes that 32% of which were committed were rape, murder, or assault- leaves the remaining 68% ultimately in the dark.

To clarify, I do not think that rapists, murderers, and pedophiles should be able to vote while in prison because they are serious charges that endangered another person’s life. I mean to even say “Should rapists and pedophiles be able to vote?” ignores the fact that there are hella rapists and pedophiles loose in the world right now. Whether its due to the victims not filing an official report, police negligence, or untested rape kits, the fact is that rapists and pedophiles ARE indeed voting because they didn’t go to jail in the first place.

I do believe all voting rights should be restored by the time they are released because they have served their sentences. Maybe the law could be any crime under a Class C felony can vote while incarcerated. Perhaps the individual inmate could apply to the court is was sentenced by to see about restoring their voting rights. Something. I’m obviously not a lawmaker but it’s easy for me to see that a black and white approach on this issue isn’t accomplishing anything. It implies that someone who gets sentenced to two years in prison for selling marijuana is equivalent to someone who is serving a 50-year sentence for killing 4 people. It eliminates the people in jail serving overblown sentences due to the crime taking place during the “mandatory minimums” era. It completely erases thousands of people and their individual stories, but why are we so willing to accept that? The better way to phrase the question would be, “Do you believe that incarcerated individuals should maintain their right to vote while in prison/jail?” THEN you could clarify with policy ideas. There are different levels of crimes which why there are different sentencing times, why would voting rights not follow suit? Admittedly, all three (Sanders, Buttigieg, and Harris) said the voting rights of incarcerated individuals should be restored upon release. This is a good start, but it isn’t enough. This shouldn’t be an all or nothing approach, there is room for adjustment where we can make it.

To make the statement “Incarcerated people should not be able to vote.” OR “Formerly incarcerated people shouldn’t ever get their right to vote restored.” is to completely ignore the complex history of mass incarceration in this country while simultaneously ignoring WHO have been the victims of said mass incarceration. The 13th Amendment, which was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, “abolished slavery”, declaring: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Which is literally saying, “People that have been imprisoned by the United States government lose their rights and become slaves.”

Am I not a man and a brother?

No, not if you’ve become incarcerated in the United States.

Imprisonment in the United States of America has never been about rehabilitation, its been about free labor and punitive punishment.

States have had no problem with including the prison population in the gerrymandering of their counties but refuse to give the inmates the right to vote. Hmmm, I wonder why that is? White people make up 64% of the US population and make up 39% of the prison population. Hispanics make up 16% of the US population and make up 16% of the prison population. Black people make up 13% of the US population and make up 40% of the prison population. Knowing this and knowing that minorities more often than not tend to vote relatively liberal/left, it is not a far leap to assume the reasoning behind crippling the minority prison populace is that counting these individuals votes (not just their bodies for gerrymandering purposes) would drastically change outcomes of elections. Even if imprisoned white people cannot vote in the process, the sacrifice is apparently worth it. Even here in Nevada, black people make up 8% of the population yet make up 29% of the prison population. This is not because black people are predisposed for violence, its because the black community and other minority communities are preyed on by the justice system, given harsher sentences, and treated inhumanely.

American's right to vote has been one of the cornerstones of its democratic example. The “National Voter Registration Act of 1993,” passed by the U.S. Congress, stated: “The Congress finds that the right of citizens of the United States to vote is a fundamental right.” Yet the laws do not reflect this for imprisoned individuals. “Criminal” or not, people are still human and should be treated as such. When you think of the number of people in jail for everything that is NOT rape, murder, or assault, you are left with roughly 1,564,000 people. That number is filled with false imprisonments, people serving 10+ years for nonviolent drug offenses, and people who are in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay their bail. That’s 1.6 million votes being ignored. Its 1.6 million people being ignored. In Turner v. Safley (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court said that “[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” Whether the party affiliation is democrat, republican, or independent incarcerated Americans are still Americans. They may have their right to physical freedom taken away when they are imprisoned, but voting rights are unalienable.

There’s this idea that there cannot be nuance in the law is absolutely ludicrous. Americans have to do away with this archaic way of thinking that has no place in our society. Gray areas are okay and should be embraced. The American idea of being tough on crime, but not smart on crime is ruining people’s lives. Politicians are afraid of looking weak on issues concerning crime and on the people who commit crimes so I can understand why they would be hesitant to move forward with ideas like this. It doesn’t have to be this way. Even though imprisoned people are in jail/prison/detention, they are still Americans. They should always have a say in what happens to the country even if they can’t actively participate in reaping its benefits. For a country that brags about how free it is, it sure spends a lot of time eliminating people’s rights.

Originally published at on May 24, 2019.




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