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Felon Disenfranchisement: A Sorted Nation

I began to learn about voting rights when I was a senior, in my high school civics class. We learned that exclusion from voting goes all the way back to the beginning, where the only people allowed to vote were white property owners. After white men who didn’t own property were able to vote, a slow avalanche began to fall. More and more people wanted to exercise their rights. African Americans, women, and poor people are among some of the most brought-up marginalized groups who fought and won their right to vote; but what about America’s felons?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), ever since the ancient times of Greece and Rome, revoking criminals’ right to vote has been standard practice. “Civil death,” a method often used in Europe, involved taking away a criminal’s property, forfeiting their representation in court, forbidding them to enter into contracts and their ability to vote. Civil death originated from English colonists in the U.S., and was eventually abolished; felon disenfranchisement still remains in some parts of 21st century America.

Currently, 5.8 million American citizens are unable to vote in this year’s election. 2.2 million of those people are African-Americans; 1 in 13 adults who are of color cannot vote. That is 7.7%. The rates for individual states are even higher, with Florida at 23%, Kentucky at 22% and Virginia at 20%; 3 in every 10 of these black men can be expected to be disenfranchised in their lifetime.

Throughout the 50 states, felon disenfranchisement is approached differently. Maine and Vermont never revoke their criminals’ voting rights, however, Florida, Iowa and Virginia permanently take away felon and ex-felons ability to vote.

An infographic from The Sentencing Project lays it out here:

These laws have not always been like this. Here are some of the states that have revised their policies:

Phil Sheets, an 18-year-old multidisciplinary major at West Virginia University, sat down with me at lunch, per my request, and talked to me about his thoughts on this issue. He lived in both Virginia and West Virginia, and was really familiar with a lot of the policies. “Well… I can tell you they can’t vote while they’re incarcerated, from what I know. My dad would be able to get his voting rights restored, but he would have to go through a process, it’s not automatic,” he told me.

“We, as a nation, have the largest number of incarcerated people among the developed world. Incarcerated people make mistakes and go into prison; this does not mean they are incapable of making these decisions. Perhaps violent crimes, no. Non-violent felonies should be exempt. My dad hasn’t been able to vote since 2004. He wasn’t allowed to vote on probation, either.” Phil’s father is currently residing in Virginia. “They get f***d by the system and can’t do anything about it.


“I’m honestly not sure about how I feel about it,” Anna wrote to me. “I suppose that I don’t totally agree with it – I think that felons are still citizens who deserve to perform a public duty, and they have the right to their opinion just as everyone else does. But, on the other hand, I don’t think that people who are incapable of making good decision should be able to vote, but I also understand that our prison system is flawed and that a lot of people actually need to seek mental help rather than incarceration. I do think that people who have served their time have the right to continue their lives normally, which includes having the right to vote. If someone has served their time, they should be able to vote,” she said.

“I don’t feel like criminals should have the same voting right as me because I follow the law and respect the regulations of this country. I’ve done my part to contribute to society and followed the law so I have earned my privilege to keep my rights if you cannot do this then you do not deserve these privileges,” Jess told me. “While I do support the legalization of marijuana and find that it is a crime that costs too much money to incarcerate people for, it is still a law and if you are arrested for possession or distribution you should face the same consequences as anyone else who chooses to break the law. Just because you don’t agree with a particular law doesn’t mean that you have the right to  break it. There are plenty of laws I disagree with but, as a U.S. citizen, I must follow them and because of this, I am subject to face any consequence for breaking these laws.”

I asked Jess about her view on the process of re-registering to vote. She told me “I believe it is fair but there also must be improvement within the system for this process. It’s known to be difficult due to the poor communication between parties trying to approve this voting registration. Staffing is low in these agencies as well, allowing applications to pile up,” she said. Jess is currently interning for a politician.

Do you think convicted felons should be able to vote?


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Shan Cawley
Written By

Shannon Cawley is an author and full-time student based in Morgantown, West Virginia. Her first chapbook, "depression is a thunderstorm and i am a scared dog" is set to be released by Maudlin House Press during the summer of 2017. In her free time, Shan works at her dorm's dining hall, involves herself in numerous extracurricular activities, and advocates for sexual assault victims as well as sufferers of mental illness.

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