By Christopher Zoukis
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has signed legislation effective September 1 that will ostensibly allow former inmates to register to vote. This hopefully paves the way for other states to follow suit, as the presidential election campaign enters its final stretch.
The state requires government action or petition before suffrage is restored to those who were formerly incarcerated, so this legislation is a step in the right direction in reducing the red tape associated with this restoration. This includes a requirement that the former inmate must be notified within 14 days after application whether or not their certificate of eligibility to vote was granted or not.
Currently the system can be confusing and complicated, with ex-prisoners not even knowing they are eligible to have their voting rights restored, or not knowing the process of how to do so.
While this legislation is a small step in the right direction – affecting as many as 100,000 former inmates, Alabama is also known to be harshest towards the formerly incarcerated when it comes to voting rights. Many former prisoners may never have their right to vote restored, for example, and even those who do have the right need to apply- unlike in many other states where voting rights are automatically restored after completion of serving a sentence.
In Alabama, decisions are based on whether or not a crime was committed with moral turpitude, for which there is not definitive list. Even in states that automatically restore right, the period varies by state, too - some states restore the right after prison time is served, while others include probation time too, and some have seemingly arbitrary waiting times, such as 5 years after prison time is served.
While it may not seem like a complicated issue, many would assume that prisoners should not have the right to vote – they’ve broken the law, after all, and should be punished. However, sentiment is mounting, even among the American public, that prison and any related punishment is justice enough.
Voting is truly essential part of a healthy democracy. But currently, 5.6 million Americans are unable to vote because of felon disenfranchisement. Of these, only 25% are in prison; the rest are on probation or parole.
The issue is also another of racial inequity. Black and Latino men are disproportionately affected by disenfranchisement laws, since they are also incarcerated at disproportionate rates. Nationally, 36% of the disenfranchised are black, and 13% of black men nationwide are unable to vote.
These numbers also have wider effects, as while most prisoners cannot vote, they are often counted towards the population of the legislative district of the prison, which determines a state’s number of representatives and presidential electoral votes. This can make a huge difference in important elections. Prisoners should be given the right to vote if they are counted towards the population of the legislative district. These numbers should not be used to sway voting district numbers.
These laws need to be addressed. All citizens should keep their right to vote; this should not vary based on class, race, or which state you are based in. Restoring voting rights is also essential to readjustment to normal life after release, and a significant part of reintegration into society. Restoration is a necessary part of reducing recidivism which allows those who may feel disenfranchised to have a say in society, and exercise their civic duties. A Sentencing Project study tracking released felons over several years found that those who voted were half as likely to be rearrested.
This is clearly not a simple issue, but one that needs to be addressed. All citizens should be able to retain their right to vote and remain active in their democracy, and all laws pertaining to such need to be applied fairly across the nation. Changes need to be made to address such widespread and unequal disenfranchisement.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com