Opinion: It’s time to unlock the vote in America

A stack of ballots during a recount for the 138th House District seat in Danbury last week.

A stack of ballots during a recount for the 138th House District seat in Danbury last week.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

In the 2022 midterms, millions of Americans were unable to cast their ballot. They were left voiceless, without a say in who represents them and in the policies that govern their lives.

New research from The Sentencing Project revealed that 4.6 million Americans were unable to vote because they had a current or previous felony conviction. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated voters found themselves unable to cast their ballot from behind the wall — even though they were eligible to vote.

This is unacceptable in a modern democracy. Here in Connecticut and at the national level, we must take action to right these wrongs and make our democracy stronger and our society more just.

First, we must ensure that every eligible individual who is currently incarcerated has access to the ballot. Today, the overwhelming majority of people who are incarcerated remain eligible to vote. This is often because they are incarcerated pretrial or have only been sentenced to a misdemeanor offense. Despite their eligibility, these people often find themselves unable to vote in-practice due to misinformation, de-prioritization among government officials and an institutional bureaucracy that makes actually casting a ballot near impossible.

It is incumbent upon our society to ensure that every eligible voter — including those who are incarcerated — can cast their ballot. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it benefits our society. When we encourage incarcerated people to vote, they often begin to feel a responsibility and connection to their community, as well as a belief in the power of communal voice within our shared democracy. Enabling people to vote in prison would also uphold parents’ constitutional right to direct the upbringing of their children. These parents would be given their rightful say in school board elections and other elections that directly impact them and their families.

At the same time, we must also end felony disenfranchisement. These laws serve no purpose in our society; they are a vestige of medieval times when people who broke the law were banished from their community and meant to suffer “civil death.” These laws were revived in America in the 19th century as states adopted them to exclude Black and brown Americans from the vote.

Today, there is no purpose for these laws. It is not an inherent aspect of criminal punishment, and it does nothing to reintegrate people back into their communities. No other democratic country in the world denies so many people the right to vote due to felony convictions.

We often hear critics say that if incarcerated individuals or people with felony convictions had their right to the ballot guaranteed, they would vote to soften penal codes. This argument assumes that there is something innate in the criminal mind — that the person who commits a crime has always been a criminal. It ignores that there are clear racist and classist policies in America that produce poverty, low educational proficiency and a lack of opportunities — all of which fuel our carceral state. Even worse, it lets our society off the hook for keeping those policies in place.

In many cases, rather than being “soft on crime,” we see that incarcerated people are far more concerned with reforming the racist and classist systems that brought about intergenerational poverty and a lack of opportunities. We see them focus on reforming a system that is fundamentally broke, focused on unproductive punishment rather than rehabilitation.

Instead of focusing on silencing people’s voices, we must turn toward breaking the cycle of mass incarceration and high recidivism rates. As long as those incarcerated are locked out of the vote, our nation stands incomplete in process, incomplete in thought, and incomplete in theory.

It’s time to unlock the vote in America.

James Jeter is co-founder of the Full Citizens Coalition.