Well over 91 million people cast their ballots before Election Day this year. Tens of millions more are expected to vote today.
There are bitter debates about what rules should govern the voting process. Should “ballot harvesting” be legal? How about universal mail-in voting? Should IDs be required at polling places? One proposition no one openly disagrees with, though, is that human beings have a right to self-government — at least in the sense that every adult within a given jurisdiction should be able to vote for the political representatives who govern that jurisdiction.
Or, at least, that’s what most people would say if the question were posed to them in the abstract — and if they didn’t remember the surprisingly large categories of people that constitute exceptions to this rule, exceptions generally regarded as normal and acceptable in the contemporary United States.
The People Who Aren’t Allowed to Vote
A little back-of-the-envelope math shows that there could be as many as 31.1 million adults who live in the United States who aren’t legally allowed to vote in today’s election. That’s 2.3 million prisoners, 2.87 million other current or former felons who aren’t in prison but remain disenfranchised, 13.2 million Green Card holders, and at least 10.5 million undocumented immigrants.
I’m not counting the vast number of noncitizens who have lived in the United States for years and plan to continue to live here for the rest of their lives who haven’t yet been given Green Cards. I’m also not counting the 1.1 million foreign students who live in America while they attend American colleges and universities, although the principle by which even they should be denied the right to vote is unclear. A Michigan native who plans to return to Michigan after graduating but lives for four years in South Florida while attending the University of Miami is legally allowed to register to vote in Miami-Dade County and vote not only for the president of the United States but for the governor of Florida and a number of local offices, and I’ve never heard anyone suggest that someone in this position shouldn’t be allowed to do this.
Prisoners are allowed to vote from prison in Maine and Vermont. (When I subtract the total number of state prisoners in those two states and all the juveniles imprisoned around the country, the total is still well north of 2.3 million. We lock up a lot of people in this country.) When one of the senators representing Vermont ran for president this year, he took the position that prisoners everywhere should have the same rights as prisoners in his state. This was widely treated as a gaffe. A CNN interviewer at a Town Hall incredulously asked if that meant that even the Boston Bomber should be allowed to vote. Bernie, to his great credit, stuck to his guns.
There are at least sixteen countries where prisoners have a right to vote from prison. Canada is one of them. Israel is another. Since even Israelis in prison for “security crimes” can vote, if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been the Tel Aviv Bomber rather than the Boston Bomber — and if he were an Israeli citizen rather than a guest worker or disenfranchised Palestinian — he could vote in Israeli elections. But in the United States, enfranchising prisoners is considered a wildly radical proposal. Why?
Even in a country as mass-incarceration-happy as the United States, prisoners are a small minority of the population. As far as I know, there’s never been a society with enough murderers in its prisons that if they were all given the right to vote they could elect politicians who promised to legalize mayhem. In the two states and numerous countries where prisoners can vote, the politicians who win elections aren’t noticeably different from the ones who win in places where prisoners can’t vote. It’s true that Vermont elected Bernie — but they also have a Republican governor!
So if enfranchising felons would lead to negative consequences, what are they?
The Right to Self-Government
When I’ve raised this question in the past, some people have suggested to me that prisoners who aren’t deprived of their normal rights as citizens won’t as easily be made to understand that they’ve violated societies norms. But no one who makes this claim seems to be willing to take the further step of actually claiming that prisoners are less likely to be rehabilitated and become law-abiding citizens in, say, Canada than they are in the United States. Certainly I have a hard time imagining anyone arguing with a straight face that disenfranchisement is a deterrent to crime. Are there any would-be drug dealers or armed robbers who are willing to risk confinement to prison but unwilling to risk losing their ability to vote for the candidate of their choice?
A non-consequence-based justification I’ve sometimes heard for disenfranchising prisoners is that prisoners simply don’t deserve this right. They’ve broken the social contract. Even putting aside the gap between the idealized fantasy of a society where the only way to become a prisoner is by freely choosing to commit some sort of morally heinous crime and the grim realities of a society marred by poverty, drug prohibition, and a monstrously harsh carceral regime, the idea that one of the consequences of “breaking the social contract” should be a loss of voting rights is hopelessly arbitrary.
Should people who “break the social contract” lose the right to practice their religion? Would it be acceptable, for example, to force Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to eat pork or convert to Christianity? What about free speech? The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners’ First Amendment rights are violated if prisons don’t allow inmates to send and receive letters, subject only to legitimate security concerns, and Mumia Abu-Jamal was allowed to write numerous articles from death row. But perhaps the American legal system is too lax in this regard. Should those who “break the social contract” be denied the protection of the provision of that contract dealing with free speech?
Even putting aside the crucially important premise that an enormous number of human beings incarcerated under the current system shouldn’t be in prison at all, the best reason to allow prisoners the right to vote is that the right to self-government, like free speech and freedom of religion, is a right that shouldn’t have to be earned with good behavior. All humans should have it as a default.
Freedom to Move
If it’s obscene to deprive people who’ve committed felonies of a right as basic as participation in democratic self-government, it’s even more absurd to deny it to long-term residents of the United States guilty only of the misdemeanor offense of “improper entry” into the country. To say that undocumented immigrants don’t deserve the rights of citizenship because they aren’t citizens isn’t to say much of anything at all. A citizen is just a person who has certain legal rights. Saying that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t have such rights because they don’t have them might sound like an argument, but it’s just a way of banging on the table and announcing that you like the status quo.
Even if you do believe for some reason that all 10 or 12 million undocumented immigrants deserve to be rounded up and deported for the “crime” of peacefully moving from one geographic area to another without government permission — often while fleeing extreme poverty and other intolerable conditions — few would say they should meanwhile be deprived of other standard rights. I’ve yet to see anyone openly suggest that undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation should be deprived of their freedom of association or freedom of religion or any other basic human rights. Again: What’s the difference?
If you can produce a rental lease or some mail that was delivered to you at an address in the area, you can get a borrowing card at every public library I’ve ever heard of without having to prove their citizenship status. The same is true even for other rights that depend on age. Even if you live in a state where undocumented immigrants can’t be issued drivers’ licenses, you can legally buy liquor if you have some other way to prove that you’re over twenty-one. The right to vote is a lot more important — a lot more fundamental to what it is to be an autonomous person with the same claim to dignity and self-respect as any other person — than the right to bring home craft beer from the liquor store or the latest Stephen King novel from the library.
It’s even more absurd that the 13.2 million Green Card holders around the country are denied the right to vote. If I moved to Chicago, I would be legally eligible to help vote mayor Lori Lightfoot out of office in a matter of months — and that’s how it should be. People who live in an area governed by some official should get a say in deciding who represents them. To even be eligible for a Green Card, you have to have lived in the United States for at least five years. If you’ve been given the legal right to continue to live in the country for the long term, and you’re expected to spend the rest of your life following American laws, why shouldn’t you have the same voice everyone else does in shaping those laws?
Saying that only “law-abiding citizens” should have the right to vote rolls easily off the tongue — but only because we’re accustomed to these arbitrary restrictions. There was a time when it sounded equally sensible to say that only white men with property should have that right. We should say about the former what we would say about the latter: “Fuck that.”