Tis the season, and I have to say -- I love voting. I love doing it, I love knocking on people's doors and helping them do it, I love wearing the sticker after I'm done. Voting is a real, tangible action that reminds me what democracy is all about - everyone having a voice, everyone participating. So it is no surprise that I don't love when people aren't allowed to vote.
Here's a not-so-fun fact: Currently, over 5.85 million people in the U.S. (1 out of every 40 adults) are denied the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement (according to The Sentencing Project). The vast majority of these people (around four million) are no longer serving time in prison, but are on probation or parole. It should be noted that the majority of the people with felony convictions are minorities. So what this all means is that 7.7 percent of the total U.S. African-American population is denied the right to vote. That's 1 out of every 13 black Americans.
But wait, then there is this: in six states -- Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia -- more than 7 percent of the entire adult population of the state is disenfranchised. The numbers are so high because in those states, once you have been incarcerated for a felony you may not be able vote again ever. That's right. No more democracy for you. In Florida (not that that's ever an important state in an election) that number creeps up over 10% of the voting age population. That's 1 out of 10 Floridians who cannot vote -- 2.3 out of 10 if you are African American in the Sunshine State.
The argument for felony disenfranchisement is that felonies are, by definition, serious crimes, and that a person who commits a felony has "broken" the social contract and thus given up their right to participate in civil society. But what we fail to recognize in America is that 95 percent of people with felony convictions eventually do leave prison and return to our civil society. If we don't allow them to re-join and participate in society once they return, where do we think they are going to gravitate towards?
Probably back towards prison. Just as felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects minority communities, so does economic disenfranchisement. It is incredibly difficult to find work once returning to society with a felony conviction. The unemployment rate of previously incarcerated people in the U.S. is estimated to be 60-65 percent. It sets up the predictable scenario where some people will only be able to make ends meet by turning outside the law.
Especially in these times, voting and gainful employment are things that we should be encouraging, not setting up extra barriers around. Once someone has paid their debt to society, and are thus free, they should then be free to fully participate again -- to have their voice heard at the voting booth, and to put their sweat put back into this economy. As we dig our way out of this economic and environmental hole that we find ourselves in, we need everyone's participation.
That's the sort of democracy I can believe in.
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