David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 28, 2019
Prison inmate voting is not an issue most citizens think about. In fact, until raised by Senator Bernie Sanders last week in a presidential candidate town hall meeting, I don’t think I had ever given it a second’s attention.
My first response to allowing incarcerated citizens to vote was that it was a silly, half-baked idea. After a couple days of thought, however, I changed my mind: Prison inmates should be eligible to vote.
My gut reaction to allowing inmates to vote was simply the thought that “you should lose your right to vote when you go to prison.” Then I asked “why?” Inmates are still humans, still citizens who retain rights of free speech and free exercise of religion, so why deny them the vote?
Citizens and non-citizens who violate laws need to be punished to protect other citizens from harm and to deter other citizens from disregarding social order. But prisons also should rehabilitate inmates, preparing them to return to society.
Prisons often offer drug treatment, religious services, job-training and some societal service activities such as reading books for the blind and rehabilitating abused dogs. These projects serve to connect inmates to the outside world and prepare them for their release. Restoring voting rights of citizens would encourage inmates to develop a sense of civic duty and help them to stay connected to society.
Whether young students, employees or prisoners, humans perform best when they feel and see that they have a stake in the activity. Early studies of “life without parole” inmates found, surprisingly to outsiders, that these inmates sooner or later accepted their fate and became involved in the prison’s education and service activities.
It turns out that Maine, Vermont, Canada and many European countries, including France and Germany, allow inmate voting. The issue is controversial in Great Britain where The European Court of Human Rights has held that Britain’s blanket ban on prisoner voting violates the democratic rights of its prisoners.
Prohibiting inmate voting based only on the fact of incarceration is an unnecessary civic indignity. It treats all inmates the same regardless of their crime or the length of their sentence. Felons with convictions for a third DWI, tax evaders, non-violent marijuana crimes with a short sentence are treated the same as murders, kidnappers, and drug lords.
Florida passed a referendum last November re-instating voting rights of felons when they are released from prison. Previously, former felons had to individually apply to the governor for voting restoration — a bureaucratic process usually ending in failure.
Currently 14 states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights once a convict is released from prison. In Missouri, released convicted felons must complete their probation and parole before being allowed to vote.
About 60,000 offenders in Missouri are under probation and parole supervision and cannot vote. A bill (HR 508) has been introduced into the Missouri House to restore voting rights upon release from prison, but it is not on the House calendar — although it did receive a hearing this session.
The electoral impact of maintaining an inmate’s right to vote is not likely to be large. There are about 2 million inmates in state and federal prisons, but they are not all citizens and otherwise eligible to vote.
America’s voting age population is about 250 million, but only about 150 million citizens voted in the 2016 presidential election. Therefore, restoring inmate voting nationwide would have less than a 1 percent increase in voters — if all inmates voted.
Canada found that in the 2011 elections, 54 percent of prisoners voted, compared with 61 percent of free citizens.
There are several practical aspects of prison inmate voting that need to be considered. First, conducting voting in a prison needs to be well-thought-out to protect election fraud of one form or another. Inmates need to be free to cast their own ballots without influence from other prisoners or prison authorities.
Second, because prisons are often large facilities in rural areas, there are likely to be adverse local impacts on the number of voters in a locale as well as a burden of the cost of conducting voting.
Additionally, the voting residence of inmates would need to be established. The worst-case scenario might be a county sheriff’s election where inmates make up a disproportionate portion of a county’s electorate.
It seems reasonable that inmates in state prisons be registered to vote by the Secretary of State, who would conduct the actual voting. Inmates should be eligible to vote only on federal and state matters, not on local issues or candidates.
Inmate voting would improve prisons. It will remind the rest of us that inmates are our neighbors, family members and fellow citizens and that we should reduce unnecessary and unwise imprisonment. It costs so darn much, and we need to give more attention to prison conditions and activities.
Allowing inmate voting will increase prisoners’ connection to the outside community, where many will be returning someday.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994