Everyone expects convicted felons to spend some time in prison, but not everyone realizes that along with losing their freedom they usually lose their right to vote too.
That's a lesson West Coast rapper Knoc-Turn'Al learned the hard way. When he was 18, he received four years in the slammer for robbery and gave up 11 years of voting rights.
"I can't vote," he said, "but I can tell millions of people to vote. I want people to understand that during the election year, I need you guys to vote. ... My right to vote was taken away from me through the ignorance I had in my own mind."
Under the 14th Amendment, states have the authority to make laws that deny voting rights to inmates and ex-felons. In California, where Knoc was in the box, disenfranchisement laws say that all convicted adults in prison and on parole lose their vote until a set time has lapsed.
Some 4.7 million people in various phases of the justice system have lost their votes, and at a time when bouncing a check in Alabama, jaywalking in Iowa and setting a bonfire in Las Vegas are all felony offenses, it isn't as simple as saying that robbers, rapists and murderers don't deserve the right to participate in the political process.
It may come as a shock to our generation, but the United States has never treated voting as a "universal right." When America was founded, only landowners could vote. But the electorate has broadened to include blacks, women and people without property. As the groups of folks who actually aren't allowed to vote becomes smaller — now only felons and those under 18 — it begs the question, should everyone vote? Is it a right or a privilege?
Proponents of voting rights for incarcerated people say it is the former. "There needs to be a distinction between legitimate punishment for crime and the loss of a fundamental right of citizenship," argues Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project.
And most other countries agree. No other democracy denies the vote to ex-offenders who have completed their prison sentences. According to the Sentencing Project, Finland and New Zealand restrict the vote for a short period after a felon's prison term is completed, but only in cases where people are convicted of buying or selling votes. Germany and France use disenfranchisement as a penalty depending upon the seriousness of the crime. And some countries, including Israel, Japan, Kenya, Poland and Peru, allow their prisoners to vote and even encourage prison authorities to facilitate voting participation.
Disenfranchisement opponents also cite the disproportionate number of black men in prison — and consequently their disproportionate disenfranchisement. This becomes an increasingly central issue for the American electorate as 13 percent of America's black, adult male population is disenfranchised.
Those who support the penalty of withholding votes from prisoners argue that voting is a privilege, and that denying voting rights is just one type of collateral punishment among many. Loss of business license, restitution, fines, loss of retirement and pension, and deprivation of certain civil liberties are just some of the penalties offenders may face.
"People who have committed violent crimes — rape, murder, aggravated assault — in my opinion, do not have [society's best interests in mind]," said Dr. John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "We don't want to have those kinds of people determining public policy that affects the lives of other citizens."
And with such high recidivism rates (two-thirds of ex-felons are re-arrested within three years after release), many, like Lott, have reason to believe that society’s well-being may not be an ex-felon’s priority. However in an effort to reduce the number of re-arrests, voting rights proponents advocate training programs to help ex-felons reintegrate into society and become assets to their community. “People in prison have already been punished for their crime. They need to come home in a better position to lead law-abiding and constructive lives. By addressing those issues while in prison and in the transition period, they are able to come home with a greater range of opportunity,” says Mauer.
But whether you come down on the "privilege" or the "rights" side of the argument, or anywhere in between, you could probably find a state whose laws will match your preference. Out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 49 deny voting rights to adults in prison. Thirty-three of those states disenfranchise felons on parole as well. Twenty-nine disenfranchise those on probation, and 14 states take away the lifetime voting rights of ex-felons. Only two — Maine and Vermont — allow felons to exercise their right to vote while incarcerated.
Some states have been updating these laws, many of which were written in the 1800s or earlier. Since 1996, nine states have scaled back their disenfranchisement laws. The issue even became a topic in the recent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Both General Wesley Clark and Governor Howard Dean agreed that states should restore the vote to ex-felons who had completed their sentences.
Until California gets on that train, Knoc is going to have to sit this election out. But he's not just going to sit and watch from the sidelines. "I paid my debt to society, so I can talk about it," he said.
For more political news, insight into the 2004 presidential election and information on registering to vote, check out ChooseorLose.com.