Metro, Column

Continuing the Struggle for Universal Suffrage

Outside of the Boston Book Festival last month, a policy advocate approached me while gathering signatures for her petition. Her goal was to restore the rights of the incarcerated to vote—a topic I’ve been exposed to more often in casual debate than in national coverage. Should prisoners convicted of a felony retain the right to vote? My allegiant “yes,” has often been met with debate, but even then the conversation rarely leaves the realm of hypotheticals.

The right to vote is one of our nation’s most cherished symbols of democracy and representation. To deny this liberty is to further downgrade those who are already physically and mentally barred from society. It dehumanizes those who are nevertheless humans and demoralizes those who may be in grave need of hope. Are we a society so thirsty for retribution that we are willing to dismiss an entire class of people as unfit? I certainly think not, but opinions that convicted felons lack good judgement undermine the multifaceted reasons that people go to prison and the backgrounds they come from. 

The woman at the book festival is a member of The Emancipation Initiative (EI), an organization that strives for the full restoration of voting rights for the incarcerated. My signature would be one of 80,000 necessary to petition for a constitutional amendment. The language is direct: “Article CXX of the Amendments to the Constitution is hereby annulled.” This refers to the U.S. Constitution’s 13th amendment that excludes convicted felons from the right to vote. 

Derrick Washington founded The Emancipation Initiative while he was serving a life sentence without parole. 

“I was a 21st-century slave to a system that is not catering to me or to anyone from the neighborhood that I came from,” he said to The Appeal: Political Report

In recognizing the injustice of his disenfranchisement in conjunction with a lack of political attention from officials, he established the Emancipation Initiative in 2012 while incarcerated with the goal of complete voting restoration. 

Massachusetts is one of the 16 states, along with the District of Columbia, that prohibits people from voting while incarcerated in prison but automatically restores the right after release. Twenty-one states restore voting rights after a period of parole and/or probation and 11 states prohibit voting rights indefinitely. Only in Maine and Vermont do felons never lose the right to vote, even during incarceration. Although Massachusetts is in one of the less restrictive categories, a state amendment signed in 2000 barred the incarcerated from voting in state elections while in prison. Since the act, subsequent legal attempts to reverse it have been denied.

The rise of groups like EI goes hand-in-hand with increasing attention given to criminal justice reform. Religious freedom laws have been installed in the United States since 2002 and, regarding international affairs, the European Court of Human Rights recognized the right of prisoners to vote in 2005. In light of these trends, it only makes sense to continue in this progressive direction. 

The rising social concerns for racial justice in the U.S. have additionally affected attitudes toward criminal justice reform. As the system is already racially and socioeconomically biased, disenfranchisement of those who are disadvantaged only further tips the scale. Many have come to accept the ways in which racism rears its ugly head in the form of disproportionate incarceration rates of black and Hispanic populations. A study done by a Massachusetts task force found that individuals of these populations were incarcerated at a rate 10 percent higher than that of white individuals.

Aside from emphasizing a racial imbalance, denying citizens the right to vote in any regard can be seen as wholly undemocratic. It creates a cohort that’s subject to the governing of U.S. laws but exempt from having a say in what these laws are. Does being convicted of a crime correlate to the loss of voting rights? There are certainly other lost rights it correlates to, such as the right to exist freely among compatriots. Senator Harriette Chandler, who supported the disenfranchisement bill in 2000, is a living example of this attitudinal shift. 

“People who are incarcerated are affected by the laws we make just as much as anyone else, and if I have learned anything over the past two decades, it is that we must empower people to have a voice and to use that voice to advocate for themselves and their community,” she said in an interview with The Appeal in February.

This view is indicative of how the issue is inching up on the political agenda of the United States. Although the change in attitude has been gradual, groups like EI and dedicated individuals who collect signatures bring us closer to the complete protection of inalienable rights that each citizen is entitled to. 

Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Staff

November 7, 2019