Why felons should (or shouldn't) vote in the coming election


In Illinois, 45,545 people won't vote this year. It isn't that they won't have the time. It's not that they lack motivation. It's not that the lines are too long, or they can't get to the polls.

It's where they live - in prison. Although Illinois is one of the few states that allows ex-offenders to vote when they're not locked up. But people currently in prison still can't. A Washington state court case recently challenged that restriction - alleging that because the criminal justice system puts way too many African Americans behind bars that barring them from voting constitutes discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.

A lower court agreed, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the lower court's decision. Why? Well, they said statistics weren't enough. Lawyers
in the case presented numbers showing black people are "more likely
than whites to be searched, arrested, detained and ultimately
prosecuted," and that those disparities couldn't be explained away
by crime rates. But the higher court said they would actually have to
show intentional discrimination in specific cases - perhaps of the kind
where an officer yells out, "I know you didn't do the crime, but I'm
arresting you anyway because you're black!" on tape - to get a ruling in
their favor.

In many other states, ex-felons are prevented from ever voting, even after they've served their time. Mississippi recently expanded the list of crimes that makes you ineligible to vote - adding crimes like shoplifting and timber larceny. In Florida, if people with prior felony conviction could have voted in the 2000 election, George Bush might not have become president.

Not being able to vote is just one of the ways someone who's already served their debt to society is unable to rejoin society. They can't apply for food stamps, sit on juries, serve as teachers or firefighters. One little box on every job application - have you been convicted of a crime? - often keeps them from ever holding a real job. Financial aid for college? Forget about it. The message to convicted felons is clear: we may have let you out, but you're not one of us, and you're never going to be.

That message has an impact, says the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit working for a more fair and effective criminal justice system. The group studied felons released from prison from 1997 to 2000 and found that those who could vote were much less likely to end up back in prison.

A common argument for why people in prison shouldn't be allowed to vote is that they would elect an "anti-law enforcement" ticket, one that might play a massive "get out of jail free" card.

But look around, Illinoisans. In the words of Washington Post writer Kevin Krajick, "That 'anti-law enforcement bloc' notwithstanding, we've managed very
nicely to elect plenty of criminals to office without any help from

Two governors, several alderman and perhaps countless other elected officials who see "pay-to-play" as just part of the political landscape, our criminal and corrupt slate of candidates have had no trouble getting into office. Maybe an extra 45,000 votes from people have a bit of experience spotting con artists could help.

Photo credit: Daniel Lobo 

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  • Great post. I'd even take it back a notch and debate on whether many ex-felons, especially recent releases, make it back onto the roles and are active voters. Really, it'd be ideal if parole officers systematically re-registered during initial and subsequent contacts, continuing to update those registrations with any address changes, especially considering the transient nature of ex-felons due to a sad lack of housing opportunities for this population.

  • In reply to BethB:

    Great comment, Beth. One of the writers I linked to above in the Time article suggested we actually require ex-felons to vote as part of their parole. I thought this was an excellent suggestion - requiring people to engage in society in a positive way, rather than just expecting the worst of them. Thanks for reading!

  • In reply to BethB:

    Allowing a convicted felon who has served his time is one thing but to allow a sitting convicted felon to vote? Again we look for that social justice thing.When do you guys stop. I know your already looking to get ILLEGAL immigrants to vote so lets keep going.How about lowering the age to 12 and after they vote for their favorite idol star to be they can punch up their ballot on mtv.You can not make anyone vote period.Lets talk about getting people off government support because they have a tendency to vote the status que.We need to get these felons to work not on the dole.They need to fill their time with something meaningful.Get them off the street corners.Demand results,demand they stay out off trouble.I don't have answers but I do know 'when you expect nothing from people that's exactly what you get.

  • In reply to BethB:

    After a while thinking I need to ask one more thing, when do we start to hold our elected officials accountable. We were asked to vote for these people because they had the answers,well where are the solutions?? Stop looking at these people as heros,they are just people too.Just politicians who never go after the results that are expected because there is always another election cycle coming. Limit these offices to a finite amount of time and we might get results.Believe me I want these people to succeed,what good is it to keep people on welfare for generations.Self responsability is a must in all cases,help them with this first.

  • In reply to BethB:

    The idea of convicts voting is a ploy by sleazy democrats to gain more votes very similar to motor voting laws, no voter identification asked for,students being bussed across state lines to vote illegally as in Ohio and Minnesota last election, not receiving military ballots in time to count their votes[as New York is doing as we speak], demanding no questioning of any voter whether legal or illegal,any nefarious method to add votes regardless of the legality of the voter is an old democratic trick, possible began in Chicago to vote dead people. These are old designed to steal elections as Minnesota, Washington,Illinois and others have done.

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