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The Reason Many Felons Can't Vote

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

The United States is a nation accustomed to the sneaky, conniving manipulation of our voting systems. As our politicians seek to remain in power at all costs, including the price of our democracy, they seek to prohibit voters' voices. We learn growing up in America that every vote is equal, yet simultaneously we are learning that there is widespread Gerrymandering and various forms of voter suppression that are now being fully exposed. But on top of this, many states have taken their fundamental American right to vote completely away from individuals convicted of felonies.

Beginning with the war on drugs under President Regan’s administration, there has been harsher sentencing policies and an increase of mandatory minimums. This has rapidly increased the nation’s prison population beginning in the 1980s. Since the United States has and continues to allow for private for-profit prisons, which use human labor as an opportunity for capital accumulation, it is obvious that those who profit from prisons want to continue their political influence Politicians who depend on big donors, such as the private for-profit prison owners, to remain in office, not only have an incentive to fully pack their state prisons but also to take away their ability to change the system. Currently, the US has the highest incarceration rate of any developed country due to the mandatory prison sentences and the financial incentives to imprison as many people as possible in for-profit prisons.

Each state handles voting rights for felons differently. Only Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia have never taken away felons’ right to vote, even while they are incarcerated. While in 16 states, felons lose their voting rights while incarcerated, and receive them again once released. In 21 states, felons lose their voting rights while incarcerated, and while on parole and/or probation. Their voting rights are automatically restored after this time period. Former felons may also have to pay any outstanding fines, fees or restitution before their rights are restored as well. In 11 states, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes or require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored.

Let’s talk about why this exists through a sociological view, using Levi Strauss’s structuralism. Structuralism is a general theory that asserts that elements of human culture must be understood through their relationship to a broader system. Therefore, if the status quo is a power structure dependent on capitalizing on mass incarceration then states are incentivized to not only allow mass incarceration but to ensure its continuation. Therefore, taking away the votes of those personally victimized by the system is optimal for them. Furthermore, as the incarcerated population is disproportionately men of color, the system is already set up with the power dynamics against people of color. Right now one-third of all people convicted of felonies are black. Though a felon can be a member of any race the reality is these laws further contribute to the prison industrial complex and disenfranchisement of blacks and their families. If America is a true democracy then everyone needs to be able to vote especially those who have been exploited for politicians’ gain, otherwise, we will see the continuation of only those in power truly being represented in our governing bodies.

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