By Ezekiel Caligiuri
First in a series
When the 14th Amendment of the Constitution was enacted, it was supposed to grant all persons “born or naturalized” in the United States as citizens. This still didn’t include women or members of racial or ethnic groups, not considered whole people.
It wasn’t until 1870, when the 15th Amendment was passed where it became illegal to prohibit any male citizen from their right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It wasn’t until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was passed, granting women the right to vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to make voting more accessible for the marginalized society. Yet, we are still on the fringe. The mass incarceration philosophies and practices of the last 30 years have marginalized much more terminally than at any point in American history since before reconstruction.
As of elections of 2010, 5.85 million people in the U.S. could not vote due to felony convictions. In the late 1970’s the number was as low as 1.1 million. If all imprisoned individuals constituted a state, it would have a larger population than 15 individual states; and would carry five of its own electoral votes.
This can most certainly be accredited to mass incarceration policies. From 1970 to 2010, state and federal prison populations increased from close to 350,000 prisoners to almost 2.3 million; a 650 percent increase. Much of this increase is directly associated to policies enacted in the unwinnable “War on Drugs” that has disproportionately affected the nation’s poor who inhabit the greatest part of our prison system, thus marginalizing more people to the non-voting fringes.
This is true even here, in traditionally progressive Minnesota where recent studies have shown the state has the greatest income inequality between Black and White in the country.
Another part of the issue is redistricting. Part of the national prison boom has meant construction of prisons in small towns and districts around the country that count prisoners as part of its population. Population determines districts and districts determine representation in state and federal legislature. Since prisoners make up a non-voting bloc in these rural districts, creating disproportionate voting power for those districts with prison populations that wouldn’t otherwise live there.
Opponents to prisoner voting rights have long held the stance that those who commit certain crimes, show lack of judgment that makes them less capable of electing our representatives. They also argue that these restrictions aren’t different than those based on age or mental health status. Part of the argument is that other felony restrictions exist that isn’t as often questioned; such as handgun ownership, or sex offenders near minors. Some just don’t believe we deserve a vote.
These arguments seem to me less about whether it is right or wrong, but more about adding extra layers of restriction upon individuals, alongside their actual incarceration. The truth is: the right to vote shouldn’t have anything to do with voter competency or social preferences. There are some inalienable rights that are supposed to be granted to all people. Prisoners or felons that earn the minimum yearly income are still expected to pay taxes. The restriction of voting rights for the incarcerated is merely another punitive measure that doesn’t contribute to a sager society, instead alienates more of its people.
Ezekiel Caligiuri is a writer currently incarcerated at the correctional facility in Lino Lakes. He is co-editor for the Lino Ledger, the monthly newsletter of the incarcerated population.