Can You Vote In Prison?

In the United States, voting is something a majority of Americans take immense pride in doing. Voting is a way for citizens to voice their opinion and determine the direction the country will go in. Do prisoners have a voice? Do they get to be part of the conversation?

In this blog we will cover:

  • Are prisoners allowed to vote?
  • How does voting work in prison?
  • Are there any restriction on prisoners for voting?
  • Do inmates vote?
  • The Political Conflict

Prisoners are Allowed to Vote, Sometimes.

The right for prisoners to vote has been the center of many debates and has caused a fair amount of upheaval. Every state has different rules regarding a prisoner right to vote, if they can vote at all, and how they conduct their votes.

The following thirteen states do not allow prisoners to vote:

  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah

The District of Columbia also does not allow inmates to vote.

The listed states (and the District of Columbia) do not allow inmates to vote, although they do let those on parole vote.

It is important to note that the ban on voting mostly applies to Federal elections, even if an inmate was convicted at the state level. Inmates that do not hold felony convictions are granted the right to vote in a number of states as well.

As for the other 37 states, their rules and regulations on voting laws for inmates varies, but they do not dismiss the right all together like the 13 states (and the District of Columbia) do. Two states continue to make headlines regarding this issue: Maine and Vermont. These states are unique because they allow every prisoner to vote. Complete freedom of voting is warranted here.

Inmates are able to vote freely in Maine and Vermont. Regardless of what crime the inmate committed, or how long the inmate is serving, the right to vote is still granted. In these two states, inmates are able to cast their votes for State and Federal elections, something that many inmates are unable to do in other states.

Ex-cons, or those recently released from prison may request for their voting privileges to be restored, or, depending on the state, will automatically have them reinstated after an allotted amount of time. Some states, depending on the crime committed, will automatically dismiss an ex-con’s right to vote.

In Delaware, persons that have committed specific felonies such as bribery or murder lose their right to vote indefinitely, never having the possibility to have their right to vote be restored. Delaware state officials argue that by having someone commit such serious offenses should discredit them form choosing future leaders and policies for our country.

How Does Voting Work in Prison?

In states that do allow prisoners to vote, most commonly inmates vote via an absentee ballot. An absentee ballot is a voting ballot that any U.S. citizen of voting age and stature can request. The ballot lets someone cast their vote remotely. In order words, it means the voter is not required to go to the voting station, they can just order the absentee ballot, place their votes, and mail it back.

Inmates are not the only ones who use an absentee ballot, tens of thousands of Americans choose to vote with the absentee ballot over going to a voting booth. Their motivations for doing so include anything from being out of the country at the time of voting, to just wanting to vote in the privacy of their own home. Absentee ballots are not only for prisoners.

In prison, there is typically a period of time when the ballots are distributed to prisoners that can vote. Once the ballots have been collected, they are mailed back to the sender, the State Government.

Do Prisoners Have any Restrictions on Voting?

This section will discuss the restrictions placed on prisoners that are eligible to vote, not the context of the eligibility itself.

The restrictions placed on inmates on what they can vote for varies state by state. Two states, Maine and Vermont are the only states that have zero restriction on what or who a prisoner may vote for. They are able to vote in both State and Federal elections, as well as proposals and policies.

As for the other 48 states, each one follows their own guidelines and laws. 13 states outright do not allow inmates to vote, leaving 37 states to conduct their own policies on what an inmate can vote for.

The following is a breakdown of voting rights across the remaining 37 states.

21 of these states do not allow inmates to vote and prohibit them from voting after release for an extended, set period time.

11 states may take away an inmate right to vote for the rest of their life depending on the crime committed. The only way to reverse this is for the inmate to receive a personal pardon from the Governor of the state.

The remaining 5 states fall within a gray area under these rules – some inmates are able to vote based on the crime they crime committed, while others must apply for the right to vote again.

There are no restrictions on who inmates can vote for. Inmates are able to choose who to vote for without any interference or restriction.

Do Inmates Vote?

In states where inmates are allowed to vote, their participation is actually quite low. This low vote rate can be traced back to a number of underlying factors such as inmates having a low literacy rate, a lack of information on the politics, or just the undesired to partake in voting.

It has also been stated by ex-cons that the process of voting in some correctional facilities is full of obstacles and hurtles to overcome.

These obstacles include paperwork issues, ballot problems, and general bureaucratic pitfalls. All of these conflicts can easily turn inmates away from going through the process. Investigations have been opened in both Maine and Vermont to determine if any malice was intended by these slowdowns and problems; investigators found that the primary reason for such a low inmate voting rate has little to do with the hurdles and more to do with the lack of information available to inmates.

Many inmates also feel disconnected from society and express so by not voting. They feel that their actions and what they vote for have little effect on them, hence why they choose not to go through the process of voting.

The Political Conflict

The right to vote in prison has gained national attention in 2016 and is sure to gain even more exposure in 2020. Bernie Sanders, a democrat from Vermont (one of two states that allow prisoners to vote without restriction), has called for all states to adapt similar voting laws as the ones in Vermont; Sanders claims that voting is a right all Americans possess, whether they are behind bars or not.

In recent years, many protestors have taken to the streets to demand that prisoners have the equal rights for voting as other citizens- this has been met with support and pushback. Support has overshadowed the pushback in most cases, but the question that still is on lawmakers’ minds is “should prisoners have the right to vote?”

Politian’s that support prisoners having the right to vote claim that is it illegal and against the constitution to deny them to voice their opinion. They point to past instances of abuse and neglect brought on by having the right to vote being denied.

While the support for allowing prisoners to vote can be seen across the country, it is also important to acknowledge the counterargument. Many are in favor of denying prisoners to right to vote.

Those that support this argue that prisoners are not actively contributing to society- that they are not paying taxes or being active citizens. Another argument is that prisoners are unable to fully understand what exactly it is they are voting for.

This can be pointed to the lack of provided knowledge on the topics being voted on or brought back to the statistic that only 48% of inmates are literate in major U.S. prisoners.

The discussion and debate still continues and will continue for the foreseeable future; one thing is certain however, and that is that this is a topic that people are passionate about.

FAQ

What other restrictions are imposed on felons?

Felons are unable to serve on juries in the United States. In addition, felons are not allowed to utilize federal programs such as food stamps, grants and loans, or public housing.

Are felons allowed to get a passport?

In general, felons are allowed to apply for, possess, and use a U.S. passport. Exceptions for this rule is if the felon received any drug trafficking charges, especially if the drugs being trafficked were over international borders.

Thank You for reading this article! Do you think inmates should be able to vote? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments below!

Sources

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/11/organizers-fight-turn-out-vote-county-jails/574783/

http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/11/organizers-fight-turn-out-vote-county-jails/574783/

https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/06/prisoners-in-just-two-states-can-vote-heres-why-few-do/

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