When Voting Rights are Treated as a Privilege

DeMarco Davidson

By DeMarco K. Davidson (originally published in the St. Louis American December 8, 2017)

NOTE: As MCU prepares to launch Unlock the Vote MO, we wanted to run this related article by Sacred Votes organizer DeMarco Davidson.

The United States are not united on their methods or philosophies on incarceration and voting rights. In Maine and Vermont, citizens never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated. Florida, along with eight other states, removes the rights of felons and ex-felons to vote. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights immediately after release. Twenty-eight states, including Missouri, allow ex-felons to vote if they are no longer on parole, aka “off papers.” 

Why does America not have a unified, federal law on voting rights for those who are or were incarcerated?

Multiple barriers exist for those who have served their time, but many states are pursuing reform in voting laws.  Between 1996 and 2008, 28 states passed new laws on felon voting rights. In 2015, Governor Steve Beshear (D) of our neighboring state Kentucky signed an executive order to automatically restore the right to vote and to hold public office to certain offenders.  Unfortunately, the order was immediately reversed by incoming Governor Matt Bevin (R). 

Again, why does America not have a unified, federal law on voting rights for those who are/were incarcerated?

It seems that America still embraces practices of the European empires of old. Inspired by the Greeks and Romans, Europe would transition to a legal system that believed in “civic deaths,” where people who were found guilty of crimes would forfeit property, lose the ability to appear in court, and would not be allowed to vote. The English colonists brought with them to the newly seized America many practices, including felon disenfranchisement.  Since the beginning of America, wealthy elites would attempt to suppress the political power of the lower classes.

Long story short, white male owners of property (which included business, real estate, and slaves) established the system of voting.  Throughout American history, the same class of men employed other white men to make sure that the no-income working class did not run away while the low-income working class did not form unions.  Wealthy white men would remain in control of who could vote until … well … today.

In 2001, the National Commission of Federal Election Reform “recommended” that all states allow felons to regain their right to vote immediately after completing their criminal sentences.  However, according to The Sentencing Project, 6.1 million Americans were prohibited from voting in the 2016 presidential election due to laws that disenfranchised citizens convicted of felony offenses. 

The Prison Policy Initiative estimated in 2016 that 113,600 Missourians were not allowed to vote. While 113,600 votes might not have made a difference in the 2016 presidential election for Missouri, the U.S. Senate and governor elections could have had a different outcome. 

We can improve our democracy if we stop treating the “right to vote” as if it is a privilege.  People who are incarcerated do not lose all of their rights.  They retain the right of free speech, the freedom of religion, and are allowed to express political opinions.  They retain their American citizenship.  During the Trop v. Dulles case in 1958, Justice Earl Warren wrote, “Citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior.” 

Incarcerated people have the freedom of speech but are denied the ability to speak through the casting of a vote. This creates a growing population of people who become subject to laws that they never have an ability to speak against. 

Also, small towns that have federal or private prisons count incarcerated citizens as part of their population every census.  This prison-based gerrymandering gives more political influence to politicians that benefit from more caged humans.  These citizens who are counted but cannot vote are mostly removed from metropolitan, poverty-stricken areas.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and economist Chris Hedges suggests, once rights become privileges, none of us are safe.  

DeMarco K. Davidson is an organizer for Metropolitan Congregations United in St. Louis and works with participating churches to strategize in addressing social issues – including eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Susan Sneed