By: Lenora Kirkland
As citizens, the act of voting is what solidifies our representative democracy, giving the government the electoral mandate it needs to be a legitimate power.
Whether or not you have the money or resources to join a political campaign, or fund a politician you believe in, voting is an accessible mode of political participation that no eligible American should ever be barred from. That being said, as long as we uphold the notion of voting as a privilege we will continually fall short of protecting it as a right.
There are many different ways in which the people’s right to vote is under threat. The disenfranchisement of ex-convicts and prisoners is a notable example. The United States accounts for a mere 5% of the global population, yet 25% of its incarcerated. According to a study cited by CNN, in the 2020 presidential election alone, as many as 5.1 million Americans were barred from voting due to felony convictions.
Florida is a good case study of the need for this type of reform. On the ballot in 2018, Florida voters were given the chance to voice their opinion on restoring voting rights to ex-convicts. Without this amendment, Florida was actively disenfranchising 10% of its eligible voters. The opinion given by the people was overwhelmingly in favor by 2.8 million votes, thus restoring the right to vote to 1.4 million Americans.
That being said, without federal protections in place, local politicians enacted a law that required felons to first pay their restitutions and court fines before they could have their right to vote restored. With this alteration, 774,000 of these 1.4 million Floridians saw the possibility of their right diminish. Rather than being contingent solely upon citizenship, their right to vote was greatly affected by their access to economic resources.
Ron DeSantis, the current governor of Florida won his position that year by a mere 33,000 votes, meaning the disenfranchisement of these 774,000 could have been a factor that tipped the scale in his favor to win him the election. This disenfranchisement calls into question politicians’ legitimacy and whether or not the true will of the people is truly reflected in election results.
In addition, there are other ways in which voting may become an unattainable privilege instead of a fundamental right. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the average prisoner in the United States, prior to their conviction, had an income that was 41% lower than a non-incarcerated individual from the same age group. Many of these individuals lack the economic resources to afford bail or good lawyers to make their case in court. Those who have the ability to pay the median bail of 10,000 dollars are placed at a political advantage making their vote more than just a right, but also an economic privilege.
Similar issues arise in regard to the racial disparities in the U.S. prison system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Black Americans constitute 13% of the U.S. population, yet 38.4% of the nation’s incarcerated. The criminalization of African Americans remains pervasive in the United States. On average, African Americans are twice as likely to live in poverty than white Americans, and are thus less likely to have access to good lawyers, or afford the high cost of bail. The facts on this issue are vast, with the ones cited here being only the tip of a much bigger iceberg. It is undeniable that taking away the right to vote from prisoners or ex-convicts has a racial element.
All that being said, this is a complicated issue. The electoral mandate the government claims is also made legitimate by a politically informed electorate. There would need to be provisions in place that prevented people in authority within the prison system from controlling information accessible to prisoners, if they have access to any at all. There is also the question of whether these convicts would be expected to vote in the state where they are being detained, or where they have their residency. These are important issues to tackle, yet they do not negate the right of all American citizens to vote.
We must continue to fight for equal access to this right until all of America is free to choose.
Sources: CNN, Columbia University, Pew Research Institute, Vera Institute of Justice