By Christianna Silva
About six million Americans aren’t allowed to vote because they committed a felony – a regulation that disproportionately affects people of color, according to The Sentencing Project. So when a Harvard junior asked Senator Bernie Sanders at a CNN town hall if he believes people with felony records like the perpetrator who bombed the Boston Marathon should be allowed to vote, Rep. Ayanna Pressley took a moment to point out they’re completely missing the point.
“As a nation we are facing a mass incarceration crisis that destroys families and communities,” Pressley, who represents Massachusetts's 7th congressional district, wrote on Twitter on April 25. “Don’t dare invoke one of the darkest days of terrorism in MY city to stoke fear and derail a meaningful conversation about fundamental rights & what justice looks like for the 1000s of black & brown folks who are stripped of their liberty & civic participation for minor offenses.”
This conversation has sparked a new phase in the long-running fight over the voting rights of incarcerated people, a typically partisan issue in which Democrats have accused Republicans of limiting the ability of minorities from participating in elections. But this time, it’s causing rifts within the Democratic party. At the town hall, Sanders said felons should have the right to vote; Mayor Pete Buttigieg said they shouldn’t; and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris aren’t so sure yet.
But unlike other laws and regulations that infringe upon minorities’ voting rights, Pressley pointed out that some of these laws are fairly new.
“Pundits, if you want to talk about re-enfranchising folks let’s talk,” Pressley wrote on Twitter on April 25. “Did you know in my state there wasn’t a law on the books that explicitly banned those incarcerated from voting until 2001? That law was a fearful response to those on the inside at MCI Norfolk ORGANIZING.”
Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci signed legislation in 2001 that prohibited people who have committed a felony from voting in Massachusetts until they are released from prison, in response to reports that the state’s prisoners at MCI-Norfolk were attempting to form a political action committee in prison, according to the Washington Post.
“They were calling for a more just system and humane treatment of those incarcerated,” Pressley, who is personally connected to the issue since her father was in and out of the criminal justice system while dealing with a substance use disorder, continued on Twitter. “They were reaching for the ballot to fight modern day slavery. As a nation we are facing a mass incarceration crisis that destroys families and communities.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez echoed Pressley’s sentiment, reminding folks that the overwhelming majority of inmates are people of color, many of whom are poor. According to The Sentencing Project, one of every 13 African Americans have lost their voting rights due to “felony disenfranchisement” laws — and those incarcerated people are still counted towards a county’s population numbers.
“To avoid looking completely + utterly out of touch w/ the reality our prison system: Instead of asking, ‘Should the Boston Bomber have the right to vote?’ Try, ‘Should a nonviolent person stopped w/ a dime bag LOSE the right to vote?’ Bc that question reflects WAY more people,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on April 25.
According to the Washington Post, in 14 states and D.C., felons lose their voting rights only while they are incarcerated. In 22 states, felons lose their voting rights while they are incarcerated and for a limited time afterward. And in 12 states, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes. Only two states allow prisoners to vote: Maine and Vermont, which have two of the highest percentages of white residents in the nation.
Activists argue that allowing felons to vote would not only increase the number of minorities who cast ballots, but it also has the potential to keep folks out of the system once they’ve served their time, according to a paper in the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal.
The debate also comes at a time when the conversation around nationwide voter suppression is top of mind for many people. The 2018 midterm elections saw an influx of restrictive practices that served as barriers against people's right to vote.
And the challenges continue. On April 24, the Florida House of Representatives passed the Amendment 4 bill that would require incarcerated people to pay court fines, fees, and restitution in full before earning the right to vote. The bill did not explicitly mention such monetary fees when it was initially drafted; rather, it stipulated that people be expected to complete “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation" before being able to vote again. Per the Miami Herald, Republicans interpreted that clause as an opportunity to include monetary demands, which people argue is just another way to further criminalize poverty and hinder voting rights.